Probability Space Intertwines Random Walks – Thought of the Day 144.0


agByQMany deliberations of stochasticity start with “let (Ω, F, P) be a probability space”. One can actually follow such discussions without having the slightest idea what Ω is and who lives inside. So, what is “Ω, F, P” and why do we need it? Indeed, for many users of probability and statistics, a random variable X is synonymous with its probability distribution μX and all computations such as sums, expectations, etc., done on random variables amount to analytical operations such as integrations, Fourier transforms, convolutions, etc., done on their distributions. For defining such operations, you do not need a probability space. Isn’t this all there is to it?

One can in fact compute quite a lot of things without using probability spaces in an essential way. However the notions of probability space and random variable are central in modern probability theory so it is important to understand why and when these concepts are relevant.

From a modelling perspective, the starting point is a set of observations taking values in some set E (think for instance of numerical measurement, E = R) for which we would like to build a stochastic model. We would like to represent such observations x1, . . . , xn as samples drawn from a random variable X defined on some probability space (Ω, F, P). It is important to see that the only natural ingredient here is the set E where the random variables will take their values: the set of events Ω is not given a priori and there are many different ways to construct a probability space (Ω, F, P) for modelling the same set of observations.

Sometimes it is natural to identify Ω with E, i.e., to identify the randomness ω with its observed effect. For example if we consider the outcome of a dice rolling experiment as an integer-valued random variable X, we can define the set of events to be precisely the set of possible outcomes: Ω = {1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6}. In this case, X(ω) = ω: the outcome of the randomness is identified with the randomness itself. This choice of Ω is called the canonical space for the random variable X. In this case the random variable X is simply the identity map X(ω) = ω and the probability measure P is formally the same as the distribution of X. Note that here X is a one-to-one map: given the outcome of X one knows which scenario has happened so any other random variable Y is completely determined by the observation of X. Therefore using the canonical construction for the random variable X, we cannot define, on the same probability space, another random variable which is independent of X: X will be the sole source of randomness for all other variables in the model. This also show that, although the canonical construction is the simplest way to construct a probability space for representing a given random variable, it forces us to identify this particular random variable with the “source of randomness” in the model. Therefore when we want to deal with models with a sufficiently rich structure, we need to distinguish Ω – the set of scenarios of randomness – from E, the set of values of our random variables.

Let us give an example where it is natural to distinguish the source of randomness from the random variable itself. For instance, if one is modelling the market value of a stock at some date T in the future as a random variable S1, one may consider that the stock value is affected by many factors such as external news, market supply and demand, economic indicators, etc., summed up in some abstract variable ω, which may not even have a numerical representation: it corresponds to a scenario for the future evolution of the market. S1(ω) is then the stock value if the market scenario which occurs is given by ω. If the only interesting quantity in the model is the stock price then one can always label the scenario ω by the value of the stock price S1(ω), which amounts to identifying all scenarios where the stock S1 takes the same value and using the canonical construction. However if one considers a richer model where there are now other stocks S2, S3, . . . involved, it is more natural to distinguish the scenario ω from the random variables S1(ω), S2(ω),… whose values are observed in these scenarios but may not completely pin them down: knowing S1(ω), S2(ω),… one does not necessarily know which scenario has happened. In this way one reserves the possibility of adding more random variables later on without changing the probability space.

These have the following important consequence: the probabilistic description of a random variable X can be reduced to the knowledge of its distribution μX only in the case where the random variable X is the only source of randomness. In this case, a stochastic model can be built using a canonical construction for X. In all other cases – as soon as we are concerned with a second random variable which is not a deterministic function of X – the underlying probability measure P contains more information on X than just its distribution. In particular, it contains all the information about the dependence of the random variable X with respect to all other random variables in the model: specifying P means specifying the joint distributions of all random variables constructed on Ω. For instance, knowing the distributions μX, μY of two variables X, Y does not allow to compute their covariance or joint moments. Only in the case where all random variables involved are mutually independent can one reduce all computations to operations on their distributions. This is the case covered in most introductory texts on probability, which explains why one can go quite far, for example in the study of random walks, without formalizing the notion of probability space.