I'm Harry Altman. I do strange sorts of math.

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Sniffnoy's Comments

Underappreciated points about utility functions (of both sorts)

Oops, turns out I did misremember -- Savage does not in fact put the proof in his book. You have to go to Fishburn's book.

I've been reviewing all this recently and yeah -- for anyone else who wants to get into this, I'd reccommend getting Fishburn's book ("Utility Theory for Decision Making") in addition to Savage's "Foundations of Statistics". Because in addition to the above, what I'd also forgotten is that Savage leaves out a bunch of the proofs. It's really annoying. Thankfully in Fishburn's treatment he went and actually elaborated all the proofs that Savage thought it OK to skip over...

(Also, stating the obvious, but get the second edition of "Foundations of Statistics", as it fixes some mistakes. You probably don't want just Fishburn's book, it's fairly hard to read by itself.)

What Money Cannot Buy

Oh, I see. I misread your comment then. Yes, I am assuming one already has the ability to discern the structure of an argument and doesn't need to hire someone else to do that for you...

What Money Cannot Buy

What I said above. Sorry, to be clear here, by "argument structure" I don't mean the structure of the individual arguments but rather the overall argument -- what rebuts what.

(Edit: Looks like I misread the parent comment and this fails to respond to it; see below.)

What Money Cannot Buy

This is a good point (the redemption movement comes to mind as an example), but I think the cases I'm thinking of and the cases you're describing look quite different in other details. Like, the bored/annoyed expert tired of having to correct basic mistakes, vs. the salesman who wants to initiate you into a new, exciting secret. But yeah, this is only a quick-and-dirty heuristic, and even then only good for distinguishing snake oil; it might not be a good idea to put too much weight on it, and it definitely won't help you in a real dispute ("Wait, both sides are annoyed that the other is getting basic points wrong!"). As Eliezer put it -- you can't learn physics by studying psychology!

What Money Cannot Buy

Given a bunch of people who disagree, some of whom are actual experts and some of whom are selling snake oil, expertise yourself, there are some further quick-and-dirty heuristics you can use to tell which of the two groups is which. I think basically my suggestion can be best summarized at "look at argument structure".

The real experts will likely spend a bunch of time correct popular misconceptions, which the fakers may subscribe to. By contrast, the fakers will generally not bother "correcting" the truth to their fakery, because why would they? They're trying to sell to unreflective people who just believe the obvious-seeming thing; someone who actually bothered to read corrections to misconceptions at any point is likely too savvy to be their target audience.

Sometimes though you do get actual arguments. Fortunately, it's easier to evaluate arguments than to determine truth oneself -- of course, this is only any good if at least one of the parties is right! If everyone is wrong, heuristics like this will likely be no help. But in an experts-and-fakers situation, where one of the groups is right and the other pretty definitely wrong, you can often just use heuristics like "which side has arguments (that make some degree of sense) that the other side has no answer to (that makes any sense)?". If we grant the assumption that one of the two sides is right, then it's likely to be that one.

When you actually have a lot of back-and-forth arguing -- as you might get in politics, or, as you might get in disputes between actual experts -- the usefulness of this sort of thing can drop quickly, but if you're just trying to sort out fakers from those with actual knowledge, I think it can work pretty well. (Although honestly, in a dispute between experts, I think the "left a key argument unanswered" is still a pretty big red flag.)

Underappreciated points about utility functions (of both sorts)

Well, it's worth noting that P7 is introduced to address gambles with infinitely many possible outcomes, regardless of whether those outcomes are bounded or not (which is the reason I argue above you can't just get rid of it). But yeah. Glad that's cleared up now! :)

Underappreciated points about utility functions (of both sorts)

Ahh, thanks for clarifying. I think what happened was that your modus ponens was my modus tollens -- so when I think about my preferences, I ask "what conditions do my preferences need to satisfy for me to avoid being exploited or undoing my own work?" whereas you ask something like "if my preferences need to correspond to a bounded utility function, what should they be?" [1]

That doesn't seem right. The whole point of what I've been saying is that we can write down some simple conditions that ought to be true in order to avoid being exploitable or otherwise incoherent, and then it follows as a conclusion that they have to correspond to a [bounded] utility function. I'm confused by your claim that you're asking about conditions, when you haven't been talking about conditions, but rather ways of modifying the idea of decision-theoretic utility.

Something seems to be backwards here.

I agree, one shouldn't conclude anything without a theorem. Personally, I would approach the problem by looking at the infinite wager comparisons discussed earlier and trying to formalize them into additional rationality condition. We'd need

  • an axiom describing what it means for one infinite wager to be "strictly better" than another.
  • an axiom describing what kinds of infinite wagers it is rational to be indifferent towards

I'm confused here; it sounds like you're just describing, in the VNM framework, the strong continuity requirement, or in Savage's framework, P7? Of course Savage's P7 doesn't directly talk about these things, it just implies them as a consequence. I believe the VNM case is similar although I'm less familiar with that.

Then, I would try to find a decisioning-system that satisfies these new conditions as well as the VNM-rationality axioms (where VNM-rationality applies). If such a system exists, these axioms would probably bar it from being represented fully as a utility function.

That doesn't make sense. If you add axioms, you'll only be able to conclude more things, not fewer. Such a thing will necessarily be representable by a utility function (that is valid for finite gambles), since we have the VNM theorem; and then additional axioms will just add restrictions. Which is what P7 or strong continuity do!

A summary of Savage's foundations for probability and utility.

Here's a quick issue I only just noticed but which fortunately is easily fixed:

Above I mentioned you probably want to restrict to a sigma-algebra of events and only allow measurable functions as actions. But, what does measurable mean here? Fortunately, the ordering on outcomes (even without utility) makes measurability meaningful. Except this puts a circularity in the setup, because the ordering on outcomes is induced from the ordering on actions.

Fortunately this is easily patched. You can start with the assumption of a total preorder on outcomes (considering the case of decisions without uncertainty), to make measurability meaningful and restrict actions to measurable functions (once we start considering decisions under uncertainty); then, for P3, instead of the current P3, you would strengthen the current P3 by saying that (on non-null sets) the induced ordering on outcomes actually matches the original ordering on outcomes. Then this should all be fine.

Underappreciated points about utility functions (of both sorts)

(This is more properly a followup to my sibling comment, but posting it here so you'll see it.)

I already said that I think that thinking in terms of infinitary convex combinations, as you're doing, is the wrong way to go about it; but it took me a bit to put together why that's definitely the wrong way.

Specifically, it assumes probability! Fishburn, in the paper you link, assumes probability, which is why he's able to talk about why infinitary convex combinations are or are not allowed (I mean, that and the fact that he's not necessarily arbitrary actions).

Savage doesn't assume probability! So if you want to disallow certain actions... how do you specify them? Or if you want to talk about convex combinations of actions -- not just infinitary ones, any ones -- how do you even define these?

In Savage's framework, you have to prove that if two actions can be described by the same probabilities and outcomes, then they're equivalent. E.g., suppose action A results in outcome X with probability 1/2 and outcome Y with probability 1/2, and suppose action B meets that same description. Are A and B equivalent? Well, yes, but that requires proof, because maybe A and B take outcome X on different sets of probability 1/2. (OK, in the two-outcome case it doesn't really require "proof", rather it's basically just his definition of probability; but the more general case requires proof.)

So, until you've established that theorem, that it's meaningful to combine gambles like that, and that the particular events yielding the probabilities aren't relevant, one can't really meaningfully define convex combinations at all. This makes it pretty hard to incorporate them into the setup or axioms!

More generally this should apply not only to Savage's particular formalism, but any formalism that attempts to ground probability as well as utility.

Anyway yeah. As I think I already said, I think we should think of this in terms not of, what combinations of actions yield permitted actions, but rather whether there should be forbidden actions at all. (Note btw in the usual VNM setup there aren't any forbidden actions either! Although there infinite gambles are, while not forbidden, just kind of ignored.) But this is in particular why trying to put it it in terms of convex combinations as you've done doesn't really work from a fundamentals point of view, where there is no probability yet, only preferences.

Underappreciated points about utility functions (of both sorts)

Apologies, but it sounds like you've gotten some things mixed up here? The issue is boundedness of utility functions, not whether they can take on infinity as a value. I don't think anyone here is arguing that utility functions don't need to be finite-valued. All the things you're saying seem to be related to the latter question rather than the former, or you seem to be possibly conflating them?

In the second paragraph perhaps this is just an issue of language -- when you say "infinitely high", do you actually mean "aribtrarily high"? -- but in the first paragraph this does not seem to be the case.

I'm also not sure you understood the point of my question, so let me make it more explicit. Taking the idea of a utility function and modifying it as you describe is what I called "backwards reasoning" above -- starting from the idea of a utility function, rather than starting from preferences. Why should one believe that modifying the idea of a utility function would result in something that is meaningful about preferences, without any sort of theorem to say that one's preferences must be of this form?

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