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Computing marginal likelihoods via the Fourier integral theorem and pointwise estimation of posterior densities


In this paper, we present a novel approach to the estimation of a density function at a specific chosen point. With this approach, we can estimate a normalizing constant, or equivalently compute a marginal likelihood, by focusing on estimating a posterior density function at a point. Relying on the Fourier integral theorem, the proposed method is capable of producing quick and accurate estimates of the marginal likelihood, regardless of how samples are obtained from the posterior; that is, it uses the posterior output generated by a Markov chain Monte Carlo sampler to estimate the marginal likelihood directly, with no modification to the form of the estimator on the basis of the type of sampler used. Thus, even for models with complicated specifications, such as those involving challenging hierarchical structures, or for Markov chains obtained from a black-box MCMC algorithm, the method provides a straightforward means of quickly and accurately estimating the marginal likelihood. In addition to developing theory to support the favorable behavior of the estimator, we also present a number of illustrative examples.

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The authors are grateful for the comments and suggestions of three reviewers which have allowed us to significantly improve the paper.

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Proof of Theorem 1:

We first show that

$$\begin{aligned} I(R)={\int }_{-\infty }^\infty \cos (Rx)\,\phi (x)\,\hbox {d}x=e^{-{\frac{1}{2}} {R}^2} \end{aligned}$$

for all \(R\ge 0\). Now,

$$\begin{aligned} I'(R)=-\int _{-\infty }^\infty \sin (Rx)\,x\,\phi (x)\,\hbox {d}x, \end{aligned}$$

and using integration by parts, with \(x\,\phi (x)=-\phi '(x)\), we have \(I'(R)=-R\,I(R)\) and hence (4) holds since \(I(0)=1\).

Now consider

$$\begin{aligned} \begin{aligned} I(R)&=\int _{-\infty }^\infty \cos (Rx)\,\phi (x-\mu )\,\hbox {d}x \\&=\int _{-\infty }^\infty \cos (R(x+\mu ))\,\phi (x)\,\hbox {d}x \end{aligned} \end{aligned}$$

and recall

$$\begin{aligned}\cos (R(x+\mu ))=\cos (Rx)\cos (R\mu )-\sin (Rx)\sin (R\mu ),\end{aligned}$$

and so,

$$\begin{aligned} I(R)=\cos (R\mu )\,e^{-{\frac{1}{2}} R^2} \end{aligned}$$

since \(\sin (Rx)\) is an odd function. Further, it is straightforward to show that

$$\begin{aligned} \begin{aligned} \int _{-\infty }^\infty \cos (R(y-x))\,&\phi ((x-\mu )/\sigma )/\sigma \,\hbox {d}x \\&=\cos (R(y-\mu ))\,e^{-{\frac{1}{2}}\sigma ^2R^2}, \end{aligned} \end{aligned}$$

using suitable transforms.


$$\begin{aligned} J(R)=\int _{-\infty }^\infty \frac{\sin (Rx)}{x}\,\phi (x)\,\hbox {d}x, \end{aligned}$$

then \(J'(R)\) is given by (4), so

$$\begin{aligned} J(R)=\int _{0}^{R}\,e^{-{\frac{1}{2}} s^2}\,\hbox {d}s \end{aligned}$$

since \(J(0)=0\). Hence,

$$\begin{aligned} { \begin{aligned} J(y;\mu ,\sigma ,R)&=\int _{-\infty }^\infty \frac{\sin (R(y-x))}{y-x}\,\phi ((x-\mu )/\sigma )/\sigma \,\hbox {d}x \\&=\int _0^R e^{-{\frac{1}{2}}\sigma ^2s^2}\,\cos (s(y-\mu ))\,\hbox {d}s. \end{aligned} } \end{aligned}$$

We want to look at

$$\begin{aligned} \mathrm{E}{\widehat{f}}(y)-f(y)=\frac{1}{\pi }J(y;\mu ,\sigma ,R)-\phi ((y-\mu )/\sigma )/\sigma , \end{aligned}$$

and from (4), we have that

$$\begin{aligned} \int _0^\infty e^{-{\frac{1}{2}}\sigma ^2 s^2}\,\cos (s(y-\mu ))\,\hbox {d}s=\pi \,\phi ((y-\mu )/\sigma )/\sigma . \end{aligned}$$


$$\begin{aligned}\begin{aligned} \pi |\mathrm{E}{\widehat{f}}(y)-f(y)|&=\left| \int _R^\infty e^{-{\frac{1}{2}}\sigma ^2 s^2}\,\cos (s(y-\mu ))\,\hbox {d}s\right| \\&\le \int _R^\infty e^{-{\frac{1}{2}}\sigma ^2 s^2}\,\hbox {d}s <\frac{1}{\sigma ^2R}e^{-\frac{1}{2}\sigma ^2R^2}. \end{aligned}\end{aligned}$$

This completes the proof.

General theory:

If \(f(x)\) is integrable, piecewise smooth, and piecewise continuous on \({\mathbb {R}}\), defined at its points of discontinuity so as to satisfy \(f(x)=\frac{1}{2}\left[ f(x-)+f(x+)\right] \) for all \(x\), then, as a consequence of the Fourier inversion theorem (see Folland (2009) for details), we have that

$$\begin{aligned} f(x)=\lim _{R\rightarrow \infty }\int _{-\infty }^\infty \frac{\sin (R(x-y))}{\pi (x-y)}f(y)dy. \end{aligned}$$

Now, assume that observations \(X_1,\dots ,X_n\) are i.i.d. from \(f\), a smooth density function on \({\mathbb {R}}\). Then, consider the (Monte Carlo) estimator

$$\begin{aligned} {\widehat{f}}_n(x)=\frac{1}{n}\sum _{i=1}^n\frac{\sin (R(x-x_i))}{\pi (x-x_i)}. \end{aligned}$$

For the mean, we see that, for \(R\rightarrow \infty \),

$$\begin{aligned} \begin{aligned} E\left[ {\widehat{f}}_n\left( x\right) \right]&=\frac{1}{n}\sum _{i=1}^nE\left[ \frac{\sin \left( R\left( x-x_i\right) \right) }{\pi (x-x_i)}\right] \\&=\frac{1}{\pi }\int _{\mathbb {R}}\frac{\sin \left( R\left( x-y\right) \right) }{x-y}\,f(y)\,dy \\&=\frac{1}{\pi }\int _{\mathbb {R}}\frac{\sin (u)}{u}f\left( x-u/R\right) du\\&=\frac{1}{\pi }\int _{\mathbb {R}}\frac{\sin (u)}{u}f\left( x\right) du+O\left( {1}/{R}\right) \\&=f\left( x\right) +O\left( {1}/{R}\right) . \end{aligned} \end{aligned}$$

For the variance, we see that, for \(R\rightarrow \infty \),

$$\begin{aligned} \text {Var}\left[ {\widehat{f}}_n\left( x\right) \right]&=\frac{1}{n^2}\sum _{i=1}^n\text {Var}\left[ \frac{\sin \left( R\left( x-x_i\right) \right) }{\pi (x-x_i)}\right] \\&\le \frac{1}{\pi ^2n}E\left[ \frac{\sin ^2\left( R\left( x-x_1\right) \right) }{\left( x-x_1\right) ^2}\right] \\&=\frac{1}{\pi ^2n}\int _{\mathbb {R}}\frac{\sin ^2\left( R\left( x-y\right) \right) }{\left( x-y\right) ^2}f(y)dy \\&=\frac{R}{\pi ^2n}\int _{\mathbb {R}}\frac{\sin ^2(u)}{u^2}f\left( x-u/R\right) du\\&=\frac{R}{\pi ^2n}\int _{\mathbb {R}}\frac{\sin ^2(u)}{u^2}\left[ f\left( x\right) +O\left( 1/R\right) \right] du \\&=O(R/n). \end{aligned}$$

Extending to higher dimensions, we find, as a consequence of the Fourier inversion theorem, that

$$\begin{aligned} \begin{aligned} f(x)&=\lim _{R_1\rightarrow \infty }\dots \lim _{R_d\rightarrow \infty }\int _{{\mathbb {R}}^d}\\&\quad \times \left( \prod _{j=1}^d\frac{\sin (R_j(x_j-y_j))}{\pi (x_j-y_j)}\right) f(y)dy. \end{aligned} \end{aligned}$$

In particular, assuming that \(R_j=R\) for \(j=1,\dots ,d\), we see that the estimator takes the form

$$\begin{aligned} {\widehat{f}}_n\left( x\right) =\frac{1}{n}\sum _{i=1}^n\prod _{j=1}^d\frac{\sin \left( R\left( x_j-x_{ji}\right) \right) }{\pi \left( x_j-x_{ji}\right) }. \end{aligned}$$

Then, as an extension of the result for univariate variance, assuming mutual independence of all components of \(X\), we have that

$$\begin{aligned} \begin{aligned} \text {Var}\left[ {\widehat{f}}_n\left( x\right) \right]&=\frac{1}{n^2}\sum _{i=1}^n\text {Var}\left[ \prod _{j=1}^d\frac{\sin \left( R\left( x_j-x_{ji}\right) \right) }{\pi \left( x_j-x_{ji}\right) }\right] \\&\le \frac{1}{\left( \pi ^{d}\right) ^2n}E\left[ \prod _{j=1}^d\frac{\sin ^2\left( R\left( x_j-x_{j1}\right) \right) }{\left( x_j-x_{j1}\right) ^2}\right] \\&\le \frac{1}{\left( \pi ^{d}\right) ^2n}\prod _{j=1}^dE\left[ \frac{\sin ^2\left( R\left( x_j-x_{j1}\right) \right) }{\left( x_j-x_{j1}\right) ^2}\right] \\&=O\left( R^d/n\right) . \end{aligned} \end{aligned}$$

Details for Chib and Jeliazkov (2001)

In moving from Gibbs output to Metropolis–Hastings output, we can consider the method of bridge sampling; see, for example, Gronau et al. (2020). With this method, the estimate of the marginal likelihood, which can also be seen as the normalizing constant for a posterior density function, is given by

$$\begin{aligned} {\widehat{m}}(x)=\frac{n_1^{-1}\sum _{j=1}^{n_1} h(\widetilde{\theta }_j)p(x\mid {\widetilde{\theta }}_j)\pi ({\widetilde{\theta }}_j)}{n_2^{-1}\sum _{j=1}^{n_2} h(\theta _j^*)\,g(\theta _j^*)}, \end{aligned}$$

where the \(({\widetilde{\theta }}_j)_{j=1:n_1}\) are i.i.d. from the importance density g, and the \((\theta _j^*)_{j=1:n_2}\) are i.i.d. from the posterior density. The choices to be made include the bridge function h and the importance density g. As previously mentioned, Mira and Nicholls (2004) have identified the estimator of Chib and Jeliazkov (2001) as a bridge sampling estimator.

In the context of MCMC chains produced by the Metropolis–Hastings algorithm, Chib and Jeliazkov (2001) introduce a more complicated method for marginal likelihood estimation. The Metropolis–Hastings algorithm is more flexible than the Gibbs algorithm insofar as not all the normalizing constants of the full conditional densities need to be known to run the Metropolis–Hastings algorithm. For the Metropolis–Hastings algorithm, the estimation of the posterior ordinate \(\pi (\theta ^*|x)\) given the posterior sample \(\{\theta ^{(1)},\dots ,\theta ^{(M)}\}\) requires the specification of a proposal density \(q(\theta ,\theta '|x)\) for the transition from \(\theta \) to \(\theta '\).

With this approach, Chib and Jeliazkov (2001) provide the following estimate for the marginal likelihood: \({\widehat{\pi }}\left( \theta ^*\mid x\right) =\)

$$\begin{aligned} {\begin{aligned} \prod _{r=1}^p\frac{M^{-1}\sum _{s=1}^M\alpha \left( \theta _r^{(s)},\theta _{r}^*\mid x,\psi _{r-1}^*,\psi ^{r+1,(s)}\right) q\left( \theta _{r}^{(s)},\theta _{r}^*\mid x,\psi _{r-1}^*,\psi ^{r+1,(s)}\right) }{N^{-1}\sum _{t=1}^N\alpha \left( \theta _r^{*},\theta _{r}^{(t)}\mid x,\psi _{r-1}^*,\psi ^{r+1,(t)}\right) }, \end{aligned}} \end{aligned}$$

where \(\alpha \left( \theta _r,\theta _r'|\psi _{r-1},\psi ^{r+1}\right) =\)

$$\begin{aligned} { \begin{aligned}&\min \left\{ 1,\frac{f\left( x\mid \theta _r',\psi _{r-1},\psi ^{r+1}\right) \pi \left( \theta _r',\theta _{-r}\right) }{f\left( x\mid \theta _r,\psi _{r-1},\psi ^{r+1}\right) \pi \left( \theta _r,\theta _{-r}\right) }\right. \\&\quad \left. \times \frac{q\left( \theta '_r,\theta _r\mid x,\psi _{r-1},\psi ^{r+1}\right) }{q\left( \theta _r,\theta '_r\mid x,\psi _{r-1},\psi ^{r+1}\right) }\right\} , \end{aligned} }\end{aligned}$$

with \(\psi _{r-1}\) denoting the parameters (or blocks of parameters) up to \(r\) and \(\psi ^{r+1}\) denoting those beyond \(r\). In particular, the quantity \(\pi (\theta _r^*\mid x,\theta _1^*,\dots ,\theta _{r-1}^*)\) such that \(\pi (\theta _r^*\mid x,\theta _1^*,\dots ,\theta _{r-1}^*)=\)

$$\begin{aligned} { \begin{aligned} \frac{\hbox {E}_1\{\alpha (\theta _r,\theta _{r}^*\mid x,\psi _{r-1}^*,\psi ^{r+1})q(\theta _r,\theta _r^*\mid x,\psi ^*_{r-1},\psi ^{r+1})\}}{\hbox {E}_2\{\alpha (\theta _r^*,\theta _r\mid x,\psi _{r-1}^*,\psi ^{r+1})\}} \end{aligned} }\end{aligned}$$

involves \(\hbox {E}_1\), an expectation with respect to the conditional posterior \(\pi (\theta _r,\psi ^{r+1}|x,\psi ^*_{r-1})\), and \(\hbox {E}_2\), an expectation with respect to the conditional product measure

$$\begin{aligned} \pi (\psi ^{r+1}\mid x,\psi _r^*)\,\,q(\theta _r^*,\theta _r\mid x,\psi _{r-1}^*,\psi ^{r+1}). \end{aligned}$$

Here, we have used exactly the notation in Chib and Jeliazkov (2001).

In the case of Metropolis–Hastings output, as in the case of Gibbs output, multiple runs of the sampling algorithm are needed in general, save when a single block is required, for the calculation of the numerator value. Moreover, for the Metropolis–Hastings output, there appears in the denominator of the marginal likelihood estimate a second expectation, which requires separate treatment that can prove time-consuming for certain likelihood evaluations, as revealed in Sect. 4.7.

The corresponding modifications to the algorithm must be made to ensure that the extra information needed to compute each conditional ordinate is properly stored, and although any subsequent runs simulate from a smaller set of distributions, the added sampling not only takes up time but also increases the chances that an error may be made by the user during implementation, especially as there are now multiple different expectations being taken between the parameters (or blocks) in the numerator and the denominator.

Supplementary Material

We describe the contents of the Supplementary Material document. Section 1 highlights the ability of the Fourier integral theorem, without any tuning or estimation of a covariance matrix, to estimate the value of a point on an irregular shaped density function. Section 2 compares the Fourier approach with the Warp–III algorithm. Section 3 shows how it is possible to also estimate the likelihood function using the Fourier integral theorem when the likelihood is deemed intractable. Section 4 does a wide-ranging comparison of methods for a non-nested linear model, and Section 5 does the same for a logistic regression model. Section 6 considers a mixture model, Section 7 a bimodal model, and Section 8 a dynamic linear model. In Section 9, we look at the possibility in some cases of being able to reduce the dimension of the problem by integrating out a number of parameters. Finally in Section 10 we have some remarks on the Tables presented in the main paper.

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Rotiroti, F., Walker, S.G. Computing marginal likelihoods via the Fourier integral theorem and pointwise estimation of posterior densities. Stat Comput 32, 67 (2022).

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  • Fourier integral theorem
  • Multivariate density estimation
  • Normalizing constant
  • Posterior density function