Is probability real? (Part 1)
Today, I want to address an issue with statements involving chance. To demonstrate, let’s first consider a statement that doesn’t involve chance:
“A cubic die tossed onto a flat surface will come to rest on one of its six sides.”
This claim can be empirically tested, with various dice and surfaces. If any one of our experiments results in the die spinning endlessly on a corner, we will have disproven the claim. We may have to refine the claim’s conditions; for instance, by requiring the presence of gravity. Nonetheless, it’s fairly clear what it means for the statement to be true or false. Now let’s try to make a claim involving probability:
“If a pair of standard dice are thrown, the probability of their faceup sides summing to nine will be one in nine (about 0.11 or 11%).”
What does it mean for this statement to be true? Unlike the first statement, this one doesn’t specify which result we’ll actually see. How can we possibly hope to test it, or to make use of its information?
The mathematician’s multiverse
Within the realm of abstract mathematics, we’re free to model probability in a way that fits our intuitions. Imagine a multiverse containing an infinity of possible worlds, whose total measure is 100%. Define the probability of an event, such as that of rolling a nine, to be the measure assigned to the subset of worlds in which the event actually occurs.
In the abstract formalism, we’re allowed to assign the measure however we like, subject to Kolmogorov’s axioms: the measure must be nonnegative, countably additive, and total to 100%. By respecting the symmetry of an idealized die,^{1} we might argue that only one such assignment makes sense; from it, we can calculate the probability of any event involving dice rolls.
There are two shortcomings to this approach. Firstly, we won’t always deal with nicely symmetrical objects for which direct a priori arguments are possible. Thus, we still need a means of testing probabilistic claims using reallife observations. Secondly, such arguments can never be airtight: after all, how can we hope to infer the measure on a hypothetical multiverse, when we only ever experience one world? Indeed, a realist might question if it makes any sense to discuss the chances of an event happening: either it happens or it doesn’t!
The economist’s wager
You might be more trusting of someone who puts their money where their mouth is. To back up a definite claim, not involving chance, I can simply agree to pay a penalty if it turns out I’m wrong.
This idea can be extended to probabilistic claims in the following manner: consider a lottery that pays a $90 jackpot if the next roll of a pair of dice yields a nine. If the maximum that I’m willing to pay to play is $10, this indicates that I believe a notnine roll is eight times more likely than a nine roll. This approach is appealing because, after all, the raison d’être of probability theory is to explain the decisionmaking of individuals facing uncertainty.
If another gambler’s view conflicts with mine, you may aggregate our beliefs by creating a market on which we buy and sell predictions. Consider a contract that pays $100 (plus interest) when a specified event occurs. Its price on the market can be interpreted as the percentage probability of that event. Thus, to say an event is twice as “likely” as another, simply means its market price is double.
Unlike your typical gambler, a frictionless market offers transparent nearidentical buy and sell prices. As a result, any violations of Kolmogorov’s axioms become moneymaking arbitrage opportunities. Arbitrage activity acts as an enforcer of the axioms, creating what economists call the riskneutral probability measure.
In real markets, however, this probability measure exhibits several inconsistenties. Firstly, it depends on which currency is used: as an extreme example, we wouldn’t buy a dollardenominated wager that only pays out if the dollar collapses, no matter how likely we imagine the collapse to be. Secondly, this measure is sensitive to (nondiversifiable) risk: if a widelybelieved prophecy held that rolling a nine would induce a catastrophic famine, the market would value this outcome a lot more, because everyone wants to buy insurance against such a catastrophe. Thirdly, markets can be misinformed: indeed, one motivation for participating in a market is to try to beat it! And finally, liquid markets are hard to set up.
For these reasons, we abandon this approach. We’ll seek to define probability in terms of actual outcomes instead of human bets. Nonetheless, human bets are what inspired the creation of probability theory: it’s hard to think of any other practical application! Therefore, we should remember to revisit the matter once we’ve found an appealing probability concept. Ultimately, we must be able to explain how individuals and markets behave with respect to our concept, and answer why they should care about it at all.
These questions are incredibly subtle: the theory of evolution by natural selection tells us that individuals are wired to use strategies that enabled their ancestors’ survival; however, the nature of probabilistic beliefs is that a wide range of outcomes are plausible. Indeed, while a coin will always land heads or tails, it’s considered unwise to bet your life savings on either heads or tails. Intuitively speaking, the rationale is that you’re almost certain to lose eventually, if you keep playing this way. This idea of repeated trials inspires our next interpretation, which happens to be the most popular among scientists.
The statistician’s frequentism
According to the frequentist school of thought, a probabilistic statement is not to be taken literally. Although it refers to a single event, the statement should be taken as shorthand for a claim involving a very large collection of similar events. Imagine rolling the dice over and over. The probabilistic claim that we started with is converted into the following:
“If a pair of standard dice are thrown repeatedly, then in the limit as the number of throws goes to infinity, the proportion of nines converges to one in nine (about 0.11 or 11%).”
The shortrun probability is replaced by a longrun proportion. Given an infinite sequence of rolls, this statement unambiguously reveals itself to be true or false. In light of the frequentist interpretation, we can even make more sense of our earlier interpretations. While we only experience one world, repeating an experiment under similar conditions is like observing the experiment in a parallel universe: whether we count trials or worlds, the math is virtually identical. In the limit of infinitely many bets, we can make some unambiguous conclusions about the quality of a gambler’s strategy, too: this is how casinos ensure that the house always wins!
Testing our claim is a simple matter: we roll the dice, over and over, and over and over… infinity times. Oops. Of course, there is no such thing as an experiment with infinity trials. Our arms will get tired, the dice will wear out, the Sun will explode, and all the free energy in the universe will be consumed. At best, we can do a very large number of trials. Let’s say we roll dice 9,000 times; one in nine of these would be 1,000. Perhaps we won’t roll exactly 1,000 nines, so let’s interpret our claim with a suitable margin of error, called a confidence interval:
“If a pair of standard dice are thrown 9,000 times, then the faceup sides will sum to nine for between 920 and 1,080 of the throws.”
The probability of obtaining between 920 and 1,080 nines can be calculated to be 99.3%.^{2} Thus, we’ve turned a probabilitic statement into a much more certain but still probabilistic statement. If we observe 1,100 nines, we should be able to dismiss the probabilistic claim as false. And yet, if every household on Earth were to independently perform this 9,000throw experiment, we should expect that a great many of their results would fall outside the confidence interval. They would disagree on the truth of our statement!
There’s no getting around it: despite its intuitive appeal, the frequentist definition of probability is circular, reducing probability claims to probability claims.^{3} To end the cycle, the frequentist chooses a threshold (say, 99%) beyond which to treat events as objective truths. This grants the claim an empirically observable meaning. And yet, the frequentist must take care not to consider too many such events, for otherwise the probability of at least one of the events failing may ALSO exceed the threshold of certainty: a logical contradiction.
Things only work out nicely in the limit of infinite sample size. Statisticians mainly deal with experiments which can be repeated so many times that, for most practical purposes, their conclusions can be treated as definite. Nonphilosophers are usually happy to ignore a sub1% chance of error; and if that’s not good enough, make it 0.0001%! Confidence can be increased by gathering more data, i.e., increasing the sample size.
This approach turns out to be very powerful. By designing more complex hypotheses in which probabilities vary as a function of context variables, even some phenomena that aren’t easily repeatable can be statistically analyzed. For example, weather forecasts are based on welltested models that use measurements of variables such as temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind.
On the other hand, statistical models of sports games, democratic elections, or company stocks tend to be less testable: the interactions are very complex and there are too few outcomes from which to extrapolate. Similarly, when you try to predict which colleges will admit you or which of your friends will start a business, you don’t make your case using repeatable tests. Clearly, the frequentist interpretation cannot apply. One may argue that no conclusions in these cases would hold up to a scientific standard; nonetheless, if we seek a theory of decisionmaking under uncertainty, there’s no denying the importance and prevalence of such cases.
Must we throw in the towel?
Fundamentally, questions involving probability are illposed: it’s impossible to deduce anything about worlds unconnected to our experience, let alone assign measures to them. Even if we imagine the multiverse of probability theory to be real (whatever that means!), then each world would be just as real as any other, potentially with its own inhabitants asking the same questions. Unlike physical quantities such as volume, a probability measure has no observable consequences.
So, why does probability hold such a salient intuitive significance to us? What is it about socalled “unlikely” events that make us feel surprised? Recall that evolution by natural selection is a numbers game: you can afford some mistakes, but it’s important to be right more often than wrong, and to plan accordingly. On the occasions where we’re wrong, we sense a bit of shock as we adjust our plans and our expectations for the future. This lines up with the frequentist interpretation: “likely” events are those which occur more frequently, across a large sample of similar scenarios.
What about claims that can’t be interpreted as frequencies among a large sample of scenarios? What does it mean to say it’s likely (or not) that extraterrestrial life exists? What would it mean to live in an unlikely universe, say, one in which dice rolls land on doublesixes much more often than they should, consistently for as long as dice have existed? Technically, nothing that we know about our own world’s physics forbids this: we could just get “lucky” to an enormous degree. But what would the inhabitants of this universe think? I imagine they wouldn’t consider their world unlikely at all: they would just add a new law to their description of physics: all dice, as if by divine intervention, are deemed to exhibit this strange behaviour. While it’s a rather awkward addition that complicates physics, it definitely yields a better theory in terms of predictive accuracy. We might also expect their religions to grant a spiritual significance to dice.
The scientific method of inquiry can withstand a single odd pattern involving dice. However, if the universe were arbitrarily messy, complicated, irregular, its randomness devoid of any patterns; then, it would feel as if all events were decided by divine intervention. In such a world, there would be no role for science. The ancients believed in a mystical world where everything, from weather to animal morphology, was subject to the daily whims of the Gods. Nevertheless, even the ancients believed in some basic patterns, which they could use to cook, hunt, navigate, build shelter, and otherwise live their lives. Without patterns to exploit, there would be no reason for intelligent life to emerge. That there’s a simple order underlying our universe, is one of its most remarkable characteristics.
The philosopher’s razor
Let’s see if we can develop this vague connection between probability and simplicity into a concrete idea. Our biggest clue is a question raised by the frequentist school of thought: where does the hypothesis come from in the firstplace?
If we don’t know which hypothesis to test, we might begin by considering every hypothesis that comes to mind: potentially thousands, millions, or infinitely many. In the dice experiment, we might consider some strange hypotheses, such as ones where the chances of rolling doubles depend on which celebrity’s credit card number was spelled out by the last few rolls. Suppose, for each hypothesis, we design a test that will fail (according to the idealized dice model) with 99% probability. Then, on average, one out of every hundred hypotheses will pass the test.
What makes the “true” hypothesis stand out from the many fakes? Well, the fakes would be unlikely to stand up to additional testing. The more data we collect, the more contrived the hypotheses that we’ll have to resort to; nonetheless, it will always remain possible to fit an incorrect hypothesis to all of the data seen so far. This is such a serious problem in science that it has a name: overfitting.
Somehow, we must narrow down our hypotheses. Maybe you think that’s easy: only a few hypotheses describe plausible dice behavior; the rest are patently absurd! But now you’re relying on intuitive judgment, not a rigorous methodology. If you try to sort out the source of your intuitive knowledge about how dice ought to behave, you’ll find it to be rooted in your prior knowledge about how the world works, which itself must be tested against various hypotheses. If you have good prior knowledge and take it on faith, then this works fine in practice. However, it seriously begs the question: how do we manage to obtain any knowledge about the world in which we live?
There is a solution to this dilemma. For most of history, nobody knew how to state it in precise mathematical terms; hence, it was confined to the realm of philosophy. The solution to overfitting is the law of parsimony, Occam’s razor:
“Given competing theories that can explain our observations, always prefer the simplest.”
If we take “simple” to mean that it must be described by a short English sentence, then there are only a limited number of such sentences. Among the simple hypotheses, we can eliminate all the bad ones within a finite number of trials.
Thus, we see that frequentist methodology requires the use of prior knowledge, and ultimately a principle such as Occam’s razor. Could we take this idea to its extreme, in the hopes of mitigating the other issues with frequentism? The advent of computer science gave us a theoretical framework in which to do so. With it, comes a general theory of inference with Occam’s razor at its front and center.
The computer scientist’s electric razor
English sentences can be a bit ambiguous so, for precision’s sake, we’ll express our hypotheses as computer programs, and encode our observations as computer data. Nonetheless, if you’re not a programmer, rest assured that it’s mostly kosher to replace the programs in our discussion with instructions written in your mother tongue.^{4} In the computer science framework, we restate Occam’s razor as follows:
“Given competing programs whose outputs match our observations, always prefer the shortest.”
Let’s see just how powerful this definition is. Right away, we see there’s no longer a need to carefully select hypotheses or tests, as both are builtin: all computer programs are hypotheses, with preference given to shorter ones. Testing a program amounts to verifying that its output exactly matches our observation record.
At first blush, the requirement to use deterministic programs appears to be a limitation. Luckily, randomized programs can be made deterministic by supplying the results of “coin flips” as an extra string of ones and zeros. This string makes the program longer, so Occam’s razor will prefer explanations that don’t depend on too much randomness, if one exists.
Given a string \(x\), perhaps representing a very long sequence of observations, the length of the shortest program that outputs \(x\) is called its Kolmogorov complexity \(K(x)\). By prioritizing programs by their length, we ensure that each incumbent theory has only finitely many competing hypotheses. While it’s possible to prioritize programs by other criteria, it turns out that the Kolmogorov complexity dominates every partial computable alternative, to within a constant margin. See the footnotes for an excellent technical reference,^{5}, as well as a more accessible overview.^{6} We won’t go deeply into the theory here, but merely highlight how it helps us interpret and infer probabilistic statements.
Classical information theory studies the optimal rate at which random objects can be compressed. If the objects are drawn from a known probability distribution \(\mathcal P\), then on average, the number of bits needed to compress one object is equal to a quantity known as the entropy \(H(\mathcal P)\). No compression algorithm can beat this on average. In general, it’s questionable whether we should care about the average, as opposed to the median, mode, maximum, or some other statistic.
But now, suppose we independently sample a very large number \(N\) of objects from \(\mathcal P\). The Law of Large Numbers makes the total proportional to the average: almost certainly, the total encoding length of the entire sequence of objects will be very close to \(N\cdot H(\mathcal P)\). The sequence’s Kolmogorov complexity will not be much greater: a suitable program consists of a description of \(\mathcal P\), along with the classical encoding (optimized for \(\mathcal P\)) of each object in the sequence, for a total complexity of approximately \(K(\mathcal P) + N\cdot H(\mathcal P)\).
If there’s no program that’s significantly shorter and generates the same sequence, then the above program is a good explanation for the sequence: it is approximately the simplest. That is, we can now look at an individual string, with no prior concept of it being random, and conclude whether it looks like a sequence of random draws from \(\mathcal P\). For example, consider the following sequence:
\(3,1,4,1,5,9,2,6,5,3,5,8,9,7,9,3,2,3,8,4,6,2,6,4,3,3,8,3,2,7,9,5,0,2,8,8,4,1,9,7\)
This will not pass as a random sequence of rolls from a pair of fair dice whose sides are numbered 0 to 5. Why? To interpret it as such, we must include an encoding for each element. While this is a bit shorter than writing the sequence literally, it’s much longer than the phrase: “first forty digits of pi”.
If it were possible to algorithmically compute the shortest program that outputs any given \(x\), we would have a ridiculously powerful inference engine. For instance, we could feed it a bunch of data from physics experiments, and out comes a fullyformed scientific theory, better than any we know today. Naturally, such a thing is too good to be true. For fundamental reasons related to the theory of proofs and computation, the Kolmogorov complexity is not computable.^{7} Thus, we can only try our best to discover the most parsimonious explanations we can, not knowing how close we are to the best possible. Occam’s razor can distinguish good and bad hypotheses and, unlike pure frequentism, resists abuse by a barrage of bad hypotheses. Nonetheless, it takes some ingenuity to discover a good hypothesis.
In a sense, that’s exactly what the pursuit of scientific theories is about. The ancients would be astounded to learn that so much of the world (perhaps all of it!), with its vast richness, can be described by a few simple laws. Over the centuries, we’ve found more and more patterns, making our theories ever more parsimonious. The scientific method only works because the rules of the universe happen to be simple, while the set of observations it offers is vast. Kolmogorov complexity captures this defining characteristic of our reality.
Next time…
In the next blog post, we’ll see that in pretty much any world where inference is possible, the Kolmogorov complexity approach applies. Thus, we’ll come to understand the limits of knowledge. Analogous issues will crop up in the Kolmogorov complexity methodology, via an ambiguity in the definition that we have overlooked until now: namely, the choice of computer programming language. Nonetheless, we’ll find that it’s possible to mostly mitigate the issues we found with frequentism. Finally, we’ll see what this means for probabilistic claims in practice.

The argument feels more convincing if we use chaos to ensure ergodicity, but this still requires an initial source of randomness… ↩

Hypothesis testing requires that, before running the experiment, we specify not only a hypothesis but also a test. You might wonder why we choose an interval \([920,1080]\) that’s centered at the expected result. Typically, it’s because we expect that if our hypothesis were wrong, the most realistic alternative would be that our dice produce nines at a much different frequency than we expected. If we’re certain that the frequency isn’t lower, but it may be higher, then a onesided interval \([0,1074]\) of equal confidence is more likely to rule that out. Since the chances of obtaining exactly 1,000 nines are about 1%, another perfectly valid 99%confidence test would be to check that the number of nines is anything except 1,000! Would this test ever make practical sense? It would if we’re suspiscious that the dice, rather than being random, are rigged to produce exactly 1,000 nines. Since every fixed number of rolls can be tested against in this way, every conceivable result will fail some test. ↩

The competing Bayesian school of thought, while more intuitively appealing when sample sizes are small, is circular in an even more obvious way. The circularity can be resolved using something called a universal prior; this approach turns out to be equivalent to using the Kolmogorov complexity, which we define later. ↩

That said, we can start to appreciate why a basic education in computational thinking is fundamental to understanding nature, just as math and science courses are. ↩

Ming Li and Paul Vitanyi. 2019. An Introduction to Kolmogorov Complexity and Its Applications (4th. ed.). Springer Publishing Company, Incorporated. ↩

Rathmanner, S., & Hutter, M. (2011). A philosophical treatise of universal induction. Entropy, 13(6), 10761136. ↩

The uncomputability of \(K(x)\) has to do with the fact that it’s hard to distinguish a program that takes absurdly long to run, from one that never finishes. Since an absurdly slow program is fairly useless, we might decide to include resource bounds in our complexity measure (see Chapter 7 from Li & Viyanyi). For instance, while a quantum field theory might in principle describe all of life’s processes, a supercomputer would struggle to simulate even one atom this way. To make useful inferences, we also need the theories of chemistry, biology, and the social sciences. Unlike \(K(x)\), resourcebounded measures can be computed by trying every possible program until the resource bounds are exhausted. This isn’t practical, however, as the number of programs to try would be astronomical. ↩