Probability as a guide to life

Probability is the very guide to life.’

Cicero may have been right, but ‘probability’ means something quite different nowadays to what it did millennia ago. So what kind of probability is a suitable guide to life, and when?

Suppose that we are told that ‘P(X) = p’. Often there is some implied real or virtual population, P, a proportion ‘p’ of which has the property ‘X’. To interpret such a probability statement we need to know what the relevant population is. Such statements are then normally reliable. More controversial are conditional probabilities, such as ‘P(X|Y) = p’. If you satisfy Y, does P(X)=p ‘for you’?

Suppose that:

  1. All the properties of interest (such as X and Y) can be expressed as union of some disjoint basis, B.
  2. For all such basis properties, B, P(X|B) is known.
  3. That the conditional probabilities of interest are derived from the basis properties in the usual way. (E..g. P(X|B1ÈB2) = P(B1).P(X|B1)+P(B2).P(X|B2)/P(B1ÈB2).)

The conditional probabilities constructed in this way are meaningful, but if we are interested in some other set, Z, the conditional probability P(X|Z) could take a range of values. But then we need to reconsider decision making. Instead of maximising a probability (or utility), the following heuristics that may apply:

  • If the range makes significant difference, try to get more precise data. This may be by taking more samples, or by refining the properties considered.
  • Consider the best outcome for the worst-case probabilities.
  • If the above is not acceptable, make some reasonable assumptions until there is an acceptable result possible.

For example, suppose that some urn, each contain a mix of balls, some of which are white. We can choose an urn and then pick a ball at random. We want white balls. What should we do. The conventional rule consists of assessing the proportion of white balls in each, and picking an urn with the most. This is uncontroversial if our assessments are reliable. But suppose we are faced with an urn with an unknown mix? Conventionally our assessment should not depend on whether we want to obtain or avoid a white ball. But if we want white balls the worst-case proportion is no white balls, and we avoid this urn, whereas if we want to avoid white balls the worst-case proportion is all white balls, and we again avoid this urn.

If our assessments are not biased then we would expect to do better with the conventional rule most of the time and in the long-run. For example, if the non-white balls are black, and urns are equally likely to be filled with black as white balls, then assessing that an urn with unknown contents has half white balls is justified. But in other cases we just don’t know, and choosing this urn we could do consistently badly. There is a difference between an urn whose contents are unknown, but for which you have good grounds for estimating proportion, and an urn where you have no grounds for assessing proportion.

If precise probabilities are to be the very guide to life, it had better be a dull life. For more interesting lives imprecise probabilities can be used to reduce the possibilities. It is often informative to identify worst-case options, but one can be left with genuine choices. Conventional rationality is the only way to reduce living to a formula: but is it such a good idea?

Dave Marsay