Thursday, July 16, 2020

The choice between qualitative probabilities and generalized quantitative probabilities is illusory

There are two approaches to generalizing probabilities beyond the classical real-valued numerical approach.

  1. Switch the values of the probability function from real numbers to values in some other ordered algebraic entity (e.g., the hyperreals, the surreals, an arbitrary totally ordered monoid).

  2. Switch to qualitative probabilities, where instead of assigning values to events, one just compares the events probabilistically (this one is at least as likely than that one).

In the literature (including stuff I wrote myself!), the qualitative probability approach is treated as more general. But in fact, it’s not, at least not if we assume that the “at least as likely as” relation is transitive and reflexive, i.e., is a partial preorder. For suppose that we have a collection F of events and a partial preorder ⪅ on them. Say that A ≈ B iff A ⪅ B and B ⪅ A. Let V be the set of equivalence classes of events under the relation ≈, and define the partial order ≤ on V by [A]≤[B] iff A ⪅ B, where [A] is the equivalence class of A. (All this makes sense if ⪅ is a partial preorder.) Define P(A)=[A].

And that’s it! You now have a probability function P on F whose values are a partially ordered set V. So, what you do with qualitative comparisons you can do with values. Now that I’ve said it, it’s obvious to me and I’m kicking myself for not noticing it earlier. Perhaps some people in the field have noticed it and found it so obvious that it’s not worth saying.

And rather than thinking of there being a debate between probability functions with values and qualitative probabilities, we can now just stick to the probability function approach, and say that there is a serious debate as to what kind of a structure the values have: are they a real closed field, a totally ordered field, a totally ordered monoid (and if so, does its operation correspond to addition or to multiplication in the classical case), a mere partially ordered set, etc.?

The point here applies in other contexts, such as qualitative utilities, moral value comparisons, etc. Using the apparatus of set theory, we can replace a comparison relation by a value-assignment, which makes it more convenient to apply all the apparatus of ordered algebraic entities of different sorts.

As an application, in a recent post I said that given two very plausible axioms on probability functions, one cannot have a regular rotationally-invariant probability function on the measurable subsets of the circle. Using the above remarks, that point immediately extends to qualitative probabilities that satisfy the following two axioms:

  1. If A and B are disjoint, A and C are disjoint, and B and C are equally likely, then A ∪ B and A ∪ C are equally likely, and

  2. Ω − A and Ω − B are equally likely iff A and B are equally likely,

with rotational invariance being understood as saying that A is at least as likely as B if and only if ρA is at least as likely as B if and only if A is at least as likely as ρB for every rotation ρ, and with regularity understood as saying that every non-empty event is more likely than the empty event.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's a general set of reasons to prefer the qualitative approach:

I wonder, though, if the equivalence class approach might not provide one with a response to these arguments.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That was a really roundabout way to define rotational invariance. It's much simpler (and logically equivalent) to just say that that ρA is equally likely as A.