William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Miracles And Knowledge Of Cause


Jesus turned barrels of water into wine, and good wine at that. Not a drop or two, but large pots, and in only a moment. The details might be important.

Jesus told them, “Fill the jars with water.” So they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it. And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine…

Evidently, Jesus never touched the jars. As soon as they were filled, the water in them turned to wine (though it’s possible the water turned to wine in the ladles). The time this took must have been short. A moment or two, tops.

This happened, so it had to happen some how. The question is how? If we have any physicists or chemists in the audience, perhaps they might take a guess. (If you say it didn’t happen, then suppose it did arguendo. Do not go on about how it didn’t.)

One answer, and a right answer, is “Jesus is God, and God made the world, so using these same sorts of powers, God turned the water to wine.” While this is a right answer, it does not answer how.

Knowledge of the “standard model” used in physics suggests tremendous amounts of energy are required to transform elements, and that mass and energy are in some sense equivalent, so that if any of the mass of water and trace elements in the jars was transformed into the chemicals (including ethanol and water) which made wine, more generated power available in the whole of the world at the time would have been required.

Perhaps a “spherical cow“-type analysis can provide insight, not for the quantification per se, but to gauge the size of the problem. Even if that is forthcoming—knowledge of the size of the energy required—a mechanism still has to be posited. Some kind of map that says “push these water molecules together, supply them with such-and-such momentum, etc. etc. etc.” And then you’d have to figure how some ancient peoples who had not yet harnessed electricity carried the thing out. No easy job, that.

At the other end of it, we know that such a thing must be possible because, of course, it happened. Transforming water into wine is therefore doable. But because it is doable, and because we might figure out how it can be done, at least theoretically, that does not mean that Jesus did not do it, because of course he did.

Knowledge of how an event might be caused is therefore no bar to the event being miraculous, if we accept (loosely) as “miraculous” a direct intervention by God on the secondary causes of the world. But knowledge of how an event might be caused is not equivalent to knowledge of how it was caused, though the two might overlap. There is more than one way to make wine.

Suppose we have a physical model and a means for the wine creation. It is clear, based on all evidence, that the means was not present 2,000 years ago if the means were some sort of electronic apparatus. Of course, it could be that some machine could exist that could be made of parts and know-how available then but that we in our day will never dream of. And that this apparatus could have been used. Point is, just because we (or you) cannot think of how a thing can be done, does not logically imply that the thing cannot be done—especially in the face of the thing having been done.

To summarize: the water-into-wine is a miracle for two reasons. One, Jesus did it. Two, we think it impossible, given our cumulative knowledge, that such a thing could have been done without God in that time and place and circumstance.

All this is in contrast to mysterious medical cures, which are often put forward as God-caused miracles (which I assume many are). A physician writing in the New York Times said she “examined the files of more than 1,400 miracle investigations — at least one from every canonization between 1588 and 1999…stories of recovery from illness or injury, detailing treatment and testimony from baffled physicians.”

The difficulty, which is clear, is that bafflement is epistemological. As medicine advances, bafflement recedes, and so do miracles, if all that is required for a miracle is knowledge of a possible how (explanation). What was taken as a miracle last year, and certified as such, could be uncertified once it is learnt that, say, enzyme X was present when it was not known earlier that enzyme X was the cure.

This is why the miraculous cannot be based solely on science and must require faith.


  1. Judging from the number of people who believe in the E-CAT, the fascinating email offers I have to diss the power company, etc, people do believe in miracles and unexplained phenomena. Had the miracle at Cana been couched in the terms “Miracle pump transforms water into wine”, a huge marketing campaign could have launched and millions made. In the Cana case, it happened once. In other cases, there have been demonstrations of how the promised results has been produced (as Briggs did, I shall allow that the result was produced once for purposes of illustration, but the mechanism by which it was produced has never been shared). Perhaps the problem with miracles in the Bible is they have no marketing value and therefore people have no reason to believe in them. In today’s society, it’s all about sales value.

    As for “it could happen via _________ method”, climate science is a perfect example of how science explains “cause” today and how much faith is required to believe in these mechanisms and prophecies. It’s all in the packaging. If you package the religious miracles in a science wrap and sell them as being hidden from you by the government or as an apocalypse, it sells. People want to believe, to borrow a line from the XFiles. Psychologically speaking, all people believe in things they cannot see or prove, they just use different terms to express them.

  2. The question is how?
    Time compression. Water turned to lead is not natural, but water through the vine into grape juice (then fermented or not depending on your POV), is a natural process. Lord of nature certainly is Master of time.

    Or somehow an actualization of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s food replicator. Tea, Earl Grey, Hot.

  3. “God: Why is it so hard for you to believe? Is my physical existence any more improbable than your own? What about all that hoo-ha with the devil awhile ago from that movie? Nobody had any problem believing that the devil took over and existed in a little girl. All she had to do was wet the rug, throw up some pea soup and everybody believed. The devil you could believe, but not God? I work in my own way. I don’t, I don’t get inside little children; they got enough to do just being themselves. Also I’m not about to go around to every person in the world and say, ‘Look it’s me, I wanna talk to you.’ … I’m not sure how this whole miracle business started, the idea that anything connected with me has to be a miracle. Personally I’m sorry that it did. Makes the distance between us even greater.”
    – God, played by George Burns in the movie, “Oh God”

  4. Trigger Warning

    October 13, 2016 at 9:44 am

    Fr. O’Malley was driving home from the weekly poker game. He may – or may not – have tippled a wee bit too much. Unfortunately, he was pulled over by Officer Murphy…

    Fr: What’s the problem, my son?
    Officer: Well, Father, you were weaving in and out of your lane.
    Fr: Are you sure, my son?
    Officer: Yes, Father. What’s in the cup there in the console?
    Fr: Water, my son. The stuff of life.
    Officer: May I see the cup?
    Fr: Here it is, my son.
    Officer: Father, this smells like wine.
    Fr: Faith and begorrah! He’s done it again!

  5. Does your interest in miracles have anything to do with your hopes for November?

  6. Ye Olde Statistician

    October 13, 2016 at 10:39 am

    The word translated as “miracle” is mirabilium or “marvel.”

    Aquinas said: “”We marvel at something when, seeing an effect, we do not know the cause. And since one and the same cause is at times known to certain people and not to others, it happens that some marvel and some do not.”
    — On the truth of the catholic faith against the gentiles

    Or Nicholas Oresme, bishop of Lisieux (14th cent.):
    “I propose here… to show the causes of some effects which seem to be marvels and to show that the effects occur naturally… There is no reason to take recourse to the heavens [astrology], the last refuge of the weak, or to demons, or to our glorious God, as if he would produce these effects directly…”
    — On the causes of miracles

  7. La Longue Carabine

    October 13, 2016 at 11:46 am

    And God said, “Let there be wine!”
    And there was wine, and it was good.

    God’s word is law, and that’s about as far as my small, weak mind can go.

  8. Lee: There will be no miracle in November. We did this to ourselves and it’s up to us to fix it. If the election of one or the other candidate would lead to total annihilation of the earth and it’s not time for that, intervention would be required. Short of that, we’re on our own. God allowed Hitler to rise (there was no miracle that took him out)—why would God intervene now?

  9. I think C.S. Lewis put it best (as with many other things):
    “The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern into which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.”
    –C.S. Lewis, Miracles

  10. Well, the better questions would be why the water was turned to wine and why in that way. The story is actually a clever literary device, a combination of prophetic fulfillment and radical break with tradition. It brilliantly sets the stage for things to come.


  11. Sander van der Wal

    October 13, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    You can turn water into other stuff by transmutation, making carbon and so on from the protons in the hydrogen atoms. This is what the stars are doing. Problem is the amount of energy that is released in the form of hard gamma radiation. You get wine, and cancer.

    Another possibility is to swap the water with wine, using some form of teleportation. Swapping water for wine is not a hard problem, teleporting the stuff is.

  12. RE: After a discussion of the difficulties of changing matter come the conclusion — “To summarize: the water-into-wine is a miracle for two reasons. One, Jesus did it. Two, we think it impossible, given our cumulative knowledge, that such a thing could have been done without God in that time and place and circumstance.”

    One of the nice things about those Roman invaders back in Jesus’ day was they brought language (more of it) and a lot more got recorded for posterity. Like enzyme-X curing something & thereby vaporizing a miracle into mundane chemistry, lets consider if this water to wine episode really appears to be a miracle or something more humdrum by consulting some of those ancient sources:

    Hellenistic magicians (fakes that put on entertaining shows, and, those that pretended they had the powers they didn’t for fun & profit) were recorded as using particular healing techniques in their day.

    Jesus used those very same techniques in performing his miracles; using spit-mud to cure someone’s blindness, for example.

    Just like semi-literate Joe Smith: First he came up with “seer stones” he used to help local farmers locate missing tools — for which he was put on trial, apparently misplacing those objects and then “magically” finding them for a fee; he also translated the Kinderhook plates, later shown a forgery. Essentially the very same trick, by him, is attributed to the Angel Moroni* and divinely revealed seer stones upon which Mormonism is founded. These historical facts are one reason non-Mormons who know about them have a very hard time taking that religion’s foundation story at all seriously. Too much of a coincidence. Some Mormons pondering these episodes for the first time lose faith because of them too.

    What’s more likely,
    a bona fide man-god deity performing miracles that look indistinguishable from tricks performed by local human magicians of the time,
    another round of tricks by another magician around whom a deity myth later evolved?

    If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, its probably a duck… There’s some wisdom there. The “duck” in this adventure is a guy who walks and quacks like a sleight of hand Hellenistic trickster, not a deity we’d expect to put a unique twist or two on an old trick — like modern magicians do, and, Moses did with the staff-eating-the-snakes bit. Those arguing the literal validity of the story sound, to outsiders, every bit as compelling [and self-delusional] as do Mormon apologists for the seer stone coincidences.

    * Smith, coming out of the Burned-over District, saw how people succumbed to numerous and often contradictory religious revival doctrines. Prophet of God or Egomaniac? (see YouTube) — his comments are at least suggestive, if not proof, of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). People with that disorder are exploitative of others by nature; and if charismatic attract followings (e.g. Charles Manson & Jim Jones). We know Smith had the gift of gab, so after seeing how people succumbed to religious fervor its no surprise he’d similarly start his own religion — and do so brazenly by tactics locally & officially discredited. Some people will fall for anything and an NPD will take advantage every time. NPDs are also consistently observed to view their underlings highly derisively…making one wonder if the Angel Moroni reference was an insult directed at his underlings — you morons. Of course, we’ll never know for sure. But that sort of underhanded insult is very common, seemingly irresistible, among malignant narcissists.

  13. Ah, Ken, a huckster who, cleverly realizing the water in cisterns of the area to be highly alkaline, secretly adds a little phenolphthalein to the empty jars–after they`ve been emptied by the thirsty guests–and hypnotises the chief steward (probably having excused himself to go the {beloved apostle}), previously having coached his lovely assistant (his mom) on her lines to which he pretends to resist.

    Yep, you got Jesus sussed alright! He’s Charlie Manson and Doug Henning all rolled into one. The whole four gospels makes sense now.

  14. Simples. The night before the big event, Jesus surreptitiously dumped a couple pounds of powdered wine concentrate in the barrels. Just add water, stir/jostle and voila! Wine. 😉

    Ken: regarding “Moroni”. As a former Mormon I’d just like to point out that the word/name is pronounced “muh-row’-neye”. Many/most non-Mormons pronounce the final syllable as “nee”, which isn’t correct in Mormondom.

    Also, most non-Mormons, non-Utahns aren’t aware that the word “Deseret” (as in The Deseret News, one of the two major newspapers in Utah) isn’t a misspelling of “desert”. Deseret is a Book of Mormon word meaning “honeybee”, hence the beehive as part of the Utah state symbol, appearing on the shoulder patches of the Utah National Guard, State Highway Patrol, etc. It also symbolizes “industriousness” (of or being diligent and hard-working) which a beehive epitomizes.


  15. Science is in a diferent category to faith in God. However if Science can show how something can happen then the happening isn’t miraculous .
    It’s mostly all been said.
    One can’t talk openly about miracles on here. (C. S. Lewis, John Lennox and Bob Kurland) say it right. However nobody knows and looking for a n explanation from inside a system as Michael 2 tried to say when he spoke about the goldfish is a an interesting but practically fruitless task.

    Here’s hoping for November AND December at the very least.

    Mine’s Royal Blend or Queen Anne and always hot.

    The End.


  16. The right question is why would they have come to Jesus with the problem of running out of supplies (wine or anything else) at a wedding? The right answer of course is that it was his wedding, so of course he would know where the replacement jars of wine were. We can thus be sure we’re talking of an actual event then. The rest (miracle part) was added later as part of the hagiography.

  17. Empiricism is the silliest form of Materialism. It’s the assumption that everything that exists is somehow measureable or quantifiable in physical terms.

    Unfortunately for Materialists (which are the only known example of the “Klein Bottle” in which the “inside” is the “outside” and in which everything that exists is visible from their head up their own arse) there is much reality of the metaphysical kind… we know that it exists because we can see what it does even if it can’t be trapped in a test tube and examined with an electron microscope or measured with a micrometer or anything physical. Things like Life, Truth and Love, for example.

    Now, I’d like to suggest that if matter (consisting of sub-atomic particles) and energy, and such mysterious forces as gravity, magnetism, electric charge etc. are perturbations, disturbances, deformations of an aether then it is a simple matter for Who created and organises this stuff to reorganise it instantaneously to be whatever He wants it to be… no natural, or entropic process involved.

    A simple definition of a miracle is that which does not occur according to natural, physical (or chemical) processes… that which cannot be “explained” according to the known order of how things work according to the “Laws of Nature” that we all rely on to make any kind of science even possible.

    Very particularly, if there is no “natural order” then there cannot be any miracles (things/occurrences) beyond the “natural order” which should be (if they were rational) a great consternation to Materialists since something can’t both “natural” and “unnatural” in the same incidence.

  18. Ken: I see we have someone who cannot follow instructions. It’s just impossible for you, isn’t it?
    Lynn Clark: Same as Ken—can’t follow instructions.
    andidymous: Same as Ken.

    It is said atheists are so much more open than religious people, but atheists are incapable of even imagining that anything outside their own specific beliefs are possible. They are quite obviously the rigid ones. To the point of snapping into little twigs if they have to even pretend they might be wrong.

  19. “This happened, so it had to happen some how. The question is how? If we have any physicists or chemists in the audience, perhaps they might take a guess.”

    Or, the Bible is just stories made up in the 300 years after Jesus lived, written and edited specifically to portray him as divine in order to form a religious following for the benefit of early priests and the early church.

  20. Ye Olde Statistician

    October 14, 2016 at 9:51 pm

    300 years is too late. The canonical gospels were written within 30-70 years or so of the lifetime, which is fairly standard for Greek bioi. They distrusted the written word. (You cannot cross-examine a text to resolve ambiguities of expression.) So they generally did not prepare formal bioi until the eyewitnesses were beginning to die off.

    But what Briggs has asked for is, assuming sec. arg. that the miracle account is true, there must have been a physical footprint in the material world, just as an author of a play or novel who creates a plot twist in the story line will provide a causal chain within the fictional world he has created. Thus, Ophelia dies because having been spurned and dissed by her boyfriend Hamlet, she commits suicide by drowning; but she also dies because Shakespeare wrote the play that way.

  21. Another one who can’t follow instructions……..

  22. The neurosurgeon at one of Boston’s leading hospitals told my wife and I that because our daughter had suffered oxygen deprivation so severe that, even if she lived, she would have severe and irreversible brain damage. Yet no such damage occurred. Today I hold her children in my arms. It is not water into wine (nor bread into flesh) but I will take it. There are other details but let me not bore you with them.

  23. Sheri —

    Following instructions is what got us where we are today!… Not following instructions is what we are supposed to do…


    I am not supposed to read the wikileaks emails.

    I am supposed to get outraged because Trump decided to get himself videotaped 11 years ago attempting to tell Truths we aren’t supposed to tell. I am mildly offended that he would let it get recorded. Speaking Truth that was is never a very good idea. Recording Truth that was is always a bad idea.

    I am happy to accept that water turned to wine. I am also happy to accept that the Egyptian magicians were able to replicate the first three plagues…

    But let’s instead point to something that did happen.

    100 million copies of “50 Shades of Gray” were purchased. Almost half in the united states. From my unofficial count, more than half were sold to women…

    I am sure many people were horrified that they had purchased such a vile piece of literature. They were actually pulling a Tom Sawyer on the rest of the folks so that they wouldn’t be the only one bilked by the author…

    Or maybe, the books was interesting enough for the right folks to decide to buy it.


  24. Brad.tittle: Not following instructions includes gay marriage, Obamacare, Clinton not being prosecuted, etc. Besides, I wasn’t making a global comment. I was referring to this post and the reality that atheists seem so rigid they cannot ever allow themselves to pretend a miracle might be real, even as a thought exercise. Are you actually allowing the water turned to wine? Your next sentence indicates no. You simply cannot allow that to be true, or can you? Yet if a reasonable explanation was found? Miracles do not necessarily involve violation of physical laws, or at least some Christians will allow that this is true. This was the point of the post, I think. On the other hand, atheists do not seem to ever admit anything exists that they do not understand and cannot explain via science. That is far more faith-based and narrow than Christianity.
    (Shades of Gray references are lost on me—never read the book nor saw the movie. Not due to the subject matter, but because I generally don’t read fiction nor go to movies.)

    I agree that truth is be avoided at all costs, at least in politics and in the media. “Fact-checking” is a joke. “Truth” is whatever someone wants it to be. Subjective truth—except not really. Only certain truths are accepted. Which ones depends on the group. This is true for politics, religion, science. It makes life difficult.

  25. None of the normal (valence = electronic) chemistry I know can explain it; though, given ethanol and a synthesis path, there is no ‘organic’ chemical that can’t be synthesized. That said, the He that IS who said “Let there be light, and there was light” certainly could to an instantaneous (to us) transformation using a sand grain, relatively speaking, of the Power He Is.

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