Not Taking Information Seriously Enough

By William A. Dembski


Review of James E. Huchingson, Pandemonium Tremendum: Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2001), 230 pages, $17.00.




[[word count: 699]]


In Pandemonium Tremendum, James Huchingson takes as his starting point that scientific theories and technologies supply crucial metaphors for theological inquiry. Moreover, since the defining theory and technology of our age is respectively information theory and the computer, Huchingson focuses here for theological inspiration. Specifically, Huchingson attempts to frame a theological metaphysics in information-theoretic terms.


Central to Huchingson's project is the following definition of communication: "Communication is a decision process wherein a field or set of possibilities is reduced to some smaller number or even to a single possibility by the operation of a decision agency" (68). Accordingly, information arises in a communication context wherein decisions at one end of a communication channel reduce the possibilities at the other end. The greater the possibilities at one end and the tighter the reduction at the other, the more information gets transmitted.


Huchingson takes this picture of communication and information, and translates it into a metaphysical picture of the divine life. Accordingly, the maximal set of possibilities constitutes a primordial chaos, what Huchingson calls the Pandemonium Tremendum (always capitalized and italicized). God, then, becomes the decision agent that reduces the totally unrestricted possibilities in the Pandemonium Tremendum to create the world. The world, in this model, becomes the output at the receiver end of the communication channel.


In Huchingson's information-theoretic metaphysics, the Pandemonium Tremendum rather than God becomes the final resting place of explanation. This is implicit throughout the text, but Huchingson admits as much at the end of the book, where he concedes "the ontological subordination of God to the Pandemonium Tremendum" (219).


Huchingson sees no way around this subordination. For Huchingson, a God who actualizes possibilities is a God who limits oneself and therefore cannot be ultimate. Huchingson therefore makes the totality of possibilities ultimate and subordinates God as the agent who sifts among these possibilities to create, sustain, and guide the world.


There are two problem here. One is theological: theology traditionally locates ultimacy in God and God alone. Huchingson, by contrast, locates ultimacy in the Pandemonium Tremendum. Why not, then, simply identify the Pandemonium Tremendum with God? Huchingson has some leanings in that direction. For instance, he will favorably compare the Pandemonium Tremendum with Tillich's God as ground of being.


Given his project, however, Huchingson cannot reasonably make that identification. The problem (and this is the second and deeper problem facing Huchingson) is that the information-theoretic model Huchingson employs requires a decision agent to actualize the unbounded possibilities that make up the Pandemonium Tremendum. Clearly, within such an information-theoretic theological metaphysics, only God can serve as that decision agent. But how can such a God arise given the ontological priority of the Pandemonium Tremendum?


To his credit, in the last chapter of the book Huchingson frankly admits that this is a major conceptual weakness of his project. Unfortunately, throughout the book unwieldy circumlocutions about God's self-arising, self-constituting, self-positing, and self-deciding give the appearance that Huchingson has resolved the relation between God and the Pandemonium Tremendum when in fact a major conceptual lacuna exists between the two.


For Huchingson, the Pandemonium Tremendum is the totality of possibilities without any structure to privilege one possibility over another. Nonetheless, God as decision agent does privilege some possibilities to the exclusion of others. Since the Pandemonium Tremendum is completely undifferentiated but also ultimate, whence the differentiation needed to make sense of divine action and in particular of the world God created?


Huchingson's project founders because he has not taken his information model seriously enough. The reference class of possibilities that always forms the backdrop for a communication system is not an unbounded space of possibilities but is itself carefully chosen by the communication engineer to help solve the communication problem in question.


Consequently, in Huchingson's information-theoretic analogy, the Pandemonium Tremendum ought to correspond not to an unbounded set of possibilities but to a limited set that will be further constrained as information is generated from it (cf. the frame problem in artificial intelligence). Theologically, this corresponds to God limiting the primordial chaos and then bringing order to it. This is not only more faithful to the Christian theological tradition but also more consistent with the information-theoretic framework that Huchingson is appropriating.