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Probability and the Death of Herod Agrippa

December 6, AD2016

study
In the sight of my foes.
You anoint my head with oil.
My cup overflows. Psalm 23:5

The Faith Advantage

Nothing else compares with Sanctifying Grace, a share in the life of the Trinity. In spite of its heavenly orientation, the Grace of the Faith overflows into all human endeavor. This is most notable in philosophy.

And yet, perhaps to draw the distinction between revelation and philosophy, Divine Providence husbanded the development of philosophy among the ancient Greeks while he gradually revealed himself to his chosen people, a nomadic mid-eastern tribe, lacking a philosophical tradition. After some time, there was a confluence of Greek thought and God’s revelation to the Jews in preparation for the culmination of revelation in Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

Pope Benedict XVI noted:

I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. . . .
John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6-10) – this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

It is apparent that in revelation, we have the answers to many questions in philosophy. We then can more easily discern the purely philosophical rationale, which leads to the correct ‘answers’. It is not only in philosophy that we have experienced an advantage due to Faith. Consonant with that philosophy and the Faith, the primary historical spur to scientific inquiry has been the Catholic Faith.

Disadvantage in Trying to Discredit the Faith, a Case Study

It is not surprising that otherwise intelligent and competent thinkers are confounded in their rationale in attempting to discredit the Faith. While our cup runs over with truth, the content of their cup, in such instances, evaporates under the scrutiny of reason.

An example is the argument of Raphael Lataster which I critiqued in my previous post. His entire discussion concerns Bayes’ theorem. Lataster proposed a data set, which conforms to the format to which the theorem is applicable. However, in the course of his argument, he changed the data set so that it does not conform to that format. In this essay, I critique the non-Bayesian argument, which Lataster actually presented.

There are several problems with Lataster’s argument. There is, however, one main problem. Lataster draws a qualitative conclusion from a quantitative argument.

Lataster’s Argument in His Terms

Lataster claims that his argument is mathematical and thereby objective. He notes that the number of human deaths, not attributed to angels, n, is finite. However, it is so large that the probability, q/(n + q), of deaths by an angel reported in revelation, is virtually 0, where q is the number of deaths by angels reported in revelation. Similarly, the probability of any individual’s death not attributed to an angel, 1/n, is virtually 0. In other words, Lataster is treating deaths not attributed to angels and deaths by an angel as elements of the same large set of human deaths. Lataster’s conclusion is that the account of Herod’s death by an angel in Acts 12: 21-24 must be unauthentic. However, death by an angel is a qualitative distinction. That distinction allows the division of the set of human deaths into two subsets, the subset of deaths by an angel and the subset of deaths not attributed to angels.

This lack of authenticity cannot be due to the fact that the probabilities of any death not attributed to an angel and of Herod’s death are both judged quantitatively to be virtually 0. Also, in Lataster’s analysis both types of deaths are counted simply as deaths. Neither does Acts propose a quantitative distinction among types of death. Each and every death counts as one death, irrespective of type. Any lack of authenticity would have to be due to something other than a quantitative distinction because there is no quantitative distinction due to the type of death. Yet, according to Lataster, his argument is quantitative.

His argument merely restricts a subset of human deaths to a small number by some qualification and then concludes that deaths, so qualified, cannot be authentic because they are relatively so few in number.

Lataster’s argument in Other Terms

Mathematical probability is the ratio of the number of elements in a subset divided by the total number of elements in the set.

By accepting Lataster’s argument in his terms, one would also have to accept the following argument.

Taking n as the total number of human deaths over all time through any day last week, the fraction of these, q/n, is the probability of the deaths, q, which were reported that day last week in the death notices of your local newspaper. This probability is virtually 0. Therefore, those deaths noted in your local paper must be unauthentic. Each of those deaths is ahistorical. Those who posted a notice must be mistaken or are the perpetrators of myth or fraud. This argument and its conclusion are objective because they are solely quantitative.

Summary

Obviously, Lataster’s argument, whether applied to Herod’s death, a small number of deaths or a small subset of anything, is fallacious. In bare outline it is this:

A subset containing very few elements is identified by some characteristic. Because the set is so large, the ratio of the subset to the set is virtually 0. Consequently, the elements of the subset are unauthentic. That means they do not really exist. The subset is empty.

In attempting to discredit the Faith, should we be surprised that Raphael Lataster makes this logical blunder of self-contradiction? He seems like a really honest and intelligent inquirer (minute 52:30 – 53:43).

Differing, but Acceptable Biblical Interpretations

As quoted by Lataster, Acts 12: 21-23 reads,

21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

To me, Lataster’s interpretation of this quotation is rather curious. Admittedly, one could visualize the passage as claiming that the assembled crowd saw a vision of an angel, in an assumed human form, who thrust a visionary dagger into Herod’s heart. A more common interpretation, I believe, would be this: Just when he was vainly reveling in the accolades of the crowd in its calling him a god, Herod poetically got what was coming to him. He had a fatal heart attack, which was, as is everything, within the scope of Divine Providence.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

Filed in: Apologetics • Tags: ,

About the Author:

Bob Drury is retired. He has been fascinated with the reasonableness of the Faith since his junior year in high school in the mid-20th century for which the religion text was entitled, “Faith and Reason”. That fascination has continued throughout his education in philosophy, math and science. In his essays he hopes to share that fascination with others. Read more at his website, They Have No Wine.

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  • Howard

    “Lataster claims that his argument is mathematical and thereby objective.” Sure, like the Butcher’s argument from “The Hunting of the Snark”:

    “Taking Three as the subject to reason about—
    A convenient number to state—
    We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out
    By One Thousand diminished by Eight.

    “The result we proceed to divide, as you see,
    By Nine Hundred and Ninety Two:
    Then subtract Seventeen, and the answer must be
    Exactly and perfectly true.

    “The method employed I would gladly explain,
    While I have it so clear in my head,
    If I had but the time and you had but the brain—
    But much yet remains to be said.

    To be slightly more serious, there is this relevant quote by Einstein:

    In my opinion the answer to this question is, briefly, this: – As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.

    I would not go quite that far regarding reality — I am sufficiently Platonic in my outlook to think that mathematics has a reality of its own — but his point is absolutely true when it comes to the appropriate application of mathematics to specific “real-world” applications.

  • Adrian Johnson

    As demons are a subset of angels (they are fallen angels) deaths caused by demons in 1) occult circumstances and 2) unsuccessful exorcisms must also be counted. As demons hate humans, these are far more numerous than the rare instance that God commands a holy angel to terminate the life of a particularly wicked individual. I have lived in 3rd world countries and the incidence of people dying (sometimes comorbid with preternatural phenomena) because of the curses of witch-doctors has been studied and noted by anthropologists. You would have to consult the Vatican for estimates of failed excorcisms worldwide (good luck with that). In the event you could produce some numbers larger than “1”, I would like to see how the equation would look.

    By the way, the author is incorrect in thinking heart attacks produce the side-effect noted in Herod’s case of being eaten alive by intestinal worms.

    • I was thinking that the list of being struck down by an angel, eaten by worms and dying was not necessarily chronological. Now, after referring to Josephus’ account of Herod’s illness, I realize that was not good thinking on my part.

  • james

    I would think from the death of Herod to now probability does not exist as there is no data of any angels
    killing men over a much longer timeline than the first and last instance.