The Buddha's Lucky Throw and Pascal's Wager

Australasian Journal of Philosophy (forthcoming)

The Apaṇṇaka Sutta, one of the early recorded teachings of the Buddha, contains an argument for accepting the doctrines of karma and rebirth that Buddhist scholars claim anticipates Pascal’s wager. I call this argument the Buddha’s wager. Does it anticipate Pascal’s wager and is it a good bet? Contemporary scholars identify at least four versions of Pascal’s wager in his Pensées. This article demonstrates that the Buddha’s wager anticipates two versions of Pascal’s wager, but not its canonical form. Like Pascal’s wager, the Buddha’s wager presents a decision problem between two opposing theses in an epistemic context that lacks evidence of their truth or falsity. Like Pascal, the Buddha also tries to solve this problem using dominance, superdominance or ‘superduperdominance’ reasoning. The Apaṇṇaka Sutta likely provides the earliest textual example of such reasoning. While the Buddha’s wager does not exhibit the expected utility reasoning of the best-known form of Pascal’s wager, the article suggests a reformulation that parallels Alan Hájek’s (2018) vector-value reformulation. Is it a good bet? This article argues that it is not if this means we are rationally required to accept its recommendation. This is because, while it avoids two of the major objections levelled against Pascal’s wager, it succumbs to one and has two problems of its own.