Probability interpretations

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The word probability has been used in a variety of ways since it was first coined in relation to games of chance. Does probability measure the real, physical tendency of something to occur, or is it just a measure of how strongly one believes it will occur? In answering such questions, we interpret the probability values of probability theory.

There are two broad categories of probability interpretations which can be called 'physical' and 'evidential' probabilities. Physical probabilities, which are also called objective or frequency probabilities, are associated with random physical systems such as roulette wheels, rolling dice and radioactive atoms. In such systems, a given type of event (such as the dice yielding a six) tends to occur at a persistent rate, or 'relative frequency', in a long run of trials. Physical probabilities either explain, or are invoked to explain, these stable frequencies. Thus talk about physical probability makes sense only when dealing with well defined random experiments.[citation needed] The two main kinds of theory of physical probability are frequentist accounts (such as those of Venn, Reichenbach and von Mises)[citation needed] and propensity accounts (such as those of Popper, Miller, Giere and Fetzer).[citation needed]

Evidential probability, also called Bayesian probability (or subjectivist probability), can be assigned to any statement whatsoever, even when no random process is involved, as a way to represent its subjective plausibility, or the degree to which the statement is supported by the available evidence. On most accounts, evidential probabilities are considered to be degrees of belief, defined in terms of dispositions to gamble at certain odds. The four main evidential interpretations are the classical (e.g. Laplace's) interpretation, the subjective interpretation (de Finetti and Savage), the epistemic or inductive interpretation (Ramsey, Cox) and the logical interpretation (Keynes and Carnap).[citation needed]

Some interpretations of probability are associated with approaches to statistical inference, including theories of estimation and hypothesis testing. The physical interpretation, for example, is taken by followers of "frequentist" statistical methods, such as R. A. Fisher, Jerzy Neyman and Egon Pearson.[citation needed] Statisticians of the opposing Bayesian school typically accept the existence and importance of physical probabilities, but also consider the calculation of evidential probabilities to be both valid and necessary in statistics. This article, however, focuses on the interpretations of probability rather than theories of statistical inference.

The terminology of this topic is rather confusing, in part because probabilities are studied within so many different academic fields. The word "frequentist" is especially tricky. To philosophers it refers to a particular theory of physical probability, one that has more or less been abandoned. To scientists, on the other hand, "frequentist probability" is just what philosophers call physical (or objective) probability. Those who promote Bayesian inference view "frequentist statistics" as an approach to statistical inference that recognises only physical probabilities. Also the word "objective", as applied to probability, sometimes means exactly what "physical" means here, but is also used of evidential probabilities that are fixed by rational constraints, such as logical and epistemic probabilities.

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