Dissertation, Monash University (

1998)

Copy
BIBT_{E}X

# Abstract

This dissertation looks at a set of interconnected questions concerning the foundations of probability, and gives a series of interconnected answers. At its core is a piece of old-fashioned philosophical analysis, working out what probability is. Or equivalently, investigating the semantic question of what is the meaning of ‘probability’? Like Keynes and Carnap, I say that probability is degree of reasonable belief. This immediately raises an epistemological question, which degrees count as reasonable? To solve that in its full generality would mean the end of human inquiry, so that won’t be attempted here. Rather I will follow tradition and merely investigate which sets of partial beliefs are coherent.
The standard answer to this question, what is commonly called the Bayesian answer, says that degrees of belief are coherent iff they form a probability function. I disagree with the way this is usually justified, but subject to an important qualification I accept the answer. The important qualification is that degrees of belief may be imprecise, or vague.
Part one of the dissertation, chapters 1 to 6, looks largely at the consequences of this qualification for the semantic and epistemological questions already mentioned. It turns out that when we allow degrees of belief to be imprecise, we can discharge potentially fatal objections to some philosophically attractive theses. Two of these, that probability is degree of reasonable belief and that the probability calculus provides coherence constraints on partial beliefs, have been mentioned. Others include the claim, defended in chapter 4, that chance is probability given total history.
As well as these semantic and epistemological questions, studies of the foundations of probability usually include a detailed discussion of decision theory. For reasons set out in chapter 2, I deny we can gain epistemological insights from decision theory. Nevertheless, it is an interesting field to study on its own, and it might be expected that there would be decision theoretic consequences of allowing imprecise degrees of belief. As I show in part two, this expectation seems to be mistaken. Chapter 9 shows that there aren’t interesting consequences of this theory for decision theory proper, and chapters 10 and 11 show that Keynes’s attempt to use imprecision in degrees of belief to derive a distinctive theory of interest rates is unsound.
Chapters 7 and 8 provide a link between these two parts. In chapter 7 I look at some previous philosophical investigations into the effects of imprecision. In chapter 8 I develop what I take to be the best competitor to the theory defended here – a constructivist theory of probability. On this view degrees of belief are precise, but the relevant coherence constraint is a constructivist probability calculus. This view is, I think, mistaken, but the calculus has some intrinsic interest, and there are at least enough arguments for it to warrant a chapter-length examination.