Consciousness and Fine-Tuning, Part 3

By Brandon Rickabaugh | Plus, Culture and Biblical Commands


This book will seek to find out which biblical commands are timeless by examining their effect in the culture of the time in which they were given. Having done that, it should be possible to work out how to achieve those same purposes today. Discovering the purposes behind the commands is really important, because we can assume that God’s purposes are eternal, though the means by which to carry out a given purpose in different societies may vary.

We can discover the purpose of a command by looking at the original culture. In particular, we see that some commands are countercultural—that is, God’s people were expected to live differently from other people in that same culture. But other commands reflect the best of the current culture—that is, they identified and commended the good rules and norms of the society that these believers lived in. This difference is important, because we’d expect countercultural commands (such as rejecting idolatry) to be timeless, but culture-reflecting commands (such as women covering their heads) would not necessarily apply in another culture. This method is being increasingly used by those working with Bible ethics, partly because it takes the background of the Bible seriously and partly because it works.

Some quick examples will help to illustrate this. The various chapters in this book explore many other examples in detail.

Countercultural commands. An example of a countercultural command is the one against idolatry. The Bible consistently forbids idolatry throughout both Testaments, and this contrasted with the prevailing cultures throughout Bible times. The societies surrounding Israel in the Old Testament and the Roman society in which New Testament Christians lived were full of idols and their worshipers. This is a command that we would expect to apply in any culture, whether other people agreed with it or not.

In most Western societies it is easy to obey this command, because hardly anyone worships idols in the way that ancient people did. However, it can be very difficult in some rural African societies, because rejecting idolatry and the associated religions will cut you off from the witch doctors, and they may be your only source of herbs and medical advice in a rural situation.

In general, countercultural commands are timeless. If believers were called to make a stand against the culture they lived in by doing the opposite of what most other people were doing, then this is likely to be very important to God’s purposes. Believers should regard this as God’s message to them that they should stand up against those who do not obey this command.

Universal, culture-reflecting commands. The Bible has many commands that reflect the cultures of both Old Testament and New Testament times and also cultures in our own times. For example, all these cultures have rules against theft, murder, adultery, and so on.

Societies might define these things differently, of course. Some cultures do not consider it murder if you are avenging the murder of a family member, and some cultures expect the leader of a family to carry out a capital sentence on family members—the Roman society of New Testament times expected this. Similarly, some cultures do not regard it as stealing if you take something from a thief who has stolen from you, but this could land you in jail in most modern societies. Adultery is considered wrong in almost all cultures, but few today would regard it as a criminal offense.

Nevertheless, putting aside these differences in detail, we will find that if a command in the Bible agrees with that found in all societies, including our own, it is timeless. We should regard it as part of God’s natural revelation to the whole of humanity, which we should always obey.

— David Instone-Brewer, Moral Questions of the Bible: Timeless Truth in a Changing World (Lexham Press, 2019), 18-20.

Consciousness and Fine-Tuning

Part 3: Objections to Agentive Cosmopsychist Fine-Tuning

by Brandon Rickabaugh

Direct Objections to Agentive Cosmopsychism

In part 1 I explained the new naturalist explanation of fine-tuning, agentive cosmopsychism, as developed by Philip Goff.[1] I argued in part 2 that Goff’s defense of this thesis is easily rejected. Now, in part 3, I will raise two direct arguments against Goff’s agentive cosmopsychist hypothesis.

Back to the Multiverse?

There is good reason to think that Goff’s agentive cosmopsychism faces the same problems of the multiverse hypothesis. It merely pushes the problem of explaining fine-tuning up to another level, as we now need an explanation for the fine-tuning of the conscious cosmos, especially its cognitive powers.

Goff’s thesis is that the universe possesses sophisticated cognitive powers capable of fine-tuning the universe. The universe possesses reasons responsiveness (the capacity to recognize and respond to reasons) and future representationalism (the capacity to form mental representations of the complete future consequences of all of the choices available to it in designing the universe). Now Goff faces the problem of explaining how the universe came to possess the complex cognitive powers sufficient to account for fine-tuning in a way that does not itself require fine-tuning. Without a plausible account, Goff’s explanation of fine-tuning is drained of its explanatory power.

The great difficulties of naturalistically explaining fine-tuning include explaining consciousness, intentionality, agency, and rationality. Those such as Alvin Plantinga,[2] Angus Menuge,[3] Richard Swinburne,[4] J. P. Moreland,[5] and Lorraine Keller[6] have made these arguments in great detail. Goff has tried to avoid these difficulties by positing a universe that possesses these cognitive powers. The problem is that Goff’s universe is not a necessary being, as is God. If the conscious cosmos is not a necessary entity, then it can only serve as a total explanation for fine-tuning if it can provide an explanation for a conscious universe with the sophisticated cognitive powers of reasons responsiveness and future representationalism. That is, Goff must account for the cognitive fine-tuning of the conscious cosmos itself. So, agentive cosmopsychism only pushes the need for an explanation of fine-tuning up a level.

Goff’s False Prediction: Micro-Subjects of Consciousness Shouldn’t Exist

Recall that on agentive cosmopsychism facts about the parts of the universe are grounded in facts about the universe as a whole. Consequently, facts about micro-subjects of consciousness (all conscious beings other than the universe) are grounded in facts about the conscious universe as a whole. This gives rise to a seemingly intractable problem, which David Chalmers introduced as “the decomposition problem”[7] or what Joanna Leidenhag calls “the individuation problem,” [8] the problem of explaining how facts about a macro-subject of consciousness (the universe) ground facts about micro-subjects of consciousness (beings like us).  Leidenhag distinguishes six overlapping types of individuation problems. I will focus only on the following:

Subject Individuation Problem: How does one consciousness give rise to many distinct subjects, whose experience and perspective is neither identical to each other, nor to the former single consciousness?

The problem is straightforward. The conscious cosmos has properties that seem at odds with properties that micro-subjects possess. Consider the nature of one’s own conscious states. My states of consciousness are private, self-presenting, and stand in a direct access relation to me alone. These properties are features that my states of conscious bear to me, and not to any other subject, much less the universe. This makes it impossible for the universe, conscious or not, to individuate subjects of consciousness like you and me. It would require that the cosmos somehow takes on the specific property instances that are uniquely had by each individual micro-subject of consciousness. But how could that possibly work? How could it be that the facts about my subjective experience, that they are private, self-presenting, and directly accessible to me alone, are grounded in facts about the consciousness of the universe?

Individuation problems are extremely difficult for all versions of cosmopsychism. Little to no progress has been made in proffering plausible solutions. The traditional theist, however, does not face any of these individuation problems. Subjects of consciousness do not individuate from God. Rather, God creates, directly or indirectly, individual micro-subjects of consciousness. To clarify, my argument is not a god-of-the-gaps. It is simply that Goff’s view makes its own false prediction: given agentive cosmopsychism, it is highly improbable that there would be any micro-subjects of consciousness.

Penultimate Conclusion

Goff argues that agentive cosmopsychism is a more parsimonious explanation of fine-tuning than either the multiverse or theism. I have argued that this depends on what kind of simplicity one is concerned with and what philosophical commitments one brings to bear on how to carve the universe at its joints. I’ve shown that at key points that Goff’s appeals to parsimony do not support but presume naturalism. Like the multiverse, agentive cosmopsychism is a covering explanation for the fine-tuning data that is ideologically motivated by a rejection of theism. I have also argued that agentive cosmopsychism does not rival theism as an explanation for fine-tuning as it falsely predicts that micro-subjects of consciousness, subjects like us, should not exist. But if micro-subjects do not exist, who is offering an explanation of fine-tuning? Positing a conscious cosmos to account for fine-tuning at the expense of micro-subjects of consciousness is untenable, as are all self-refuting explanations. Once again, the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God is left unscathed.


[1] Philip Goff, “Did the Universe Design Itself?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 85 (1) (2019): 106.

[2] Alvin Plantinga, “Against Materialism,” Faith & Philosophy 23 (1) (2006): 3-32.

[3] Angus Menuge, Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

[4] See, most recently, Richard Swinburne, “The Argument from Colors and Flavors: The Argument from Consciousness,” in Walls and Dougherty (eds.) (2018), 293-303.

[5] See, e.g., J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (London: SCM, 2009); and Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008).

[6] Lorraine Juliano Keller, “The Argument from Intentionality (or Aboutness): Propositions Supernaturalized,” in Walls and Dougherty (eds.) (2018), 11-28.

[7] David Chalmers, “Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism,” in T. Alter and Y. Nagasawa (eds.), Consciousness and the Physical World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 19-47.

[8] Joanna Leidenhag, “Unity Between God and Mind? A Study on the Relationship Between Panpsychism and Pantheism,” Sophia (forthcoming).

Brandon Rickabaugh is the Franz Brentano Fellow in the Metaphysics of Mind at the Cultura Initiative, and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Baylor University. Learn more about Brandon and his work at

*Note: This essay is adapted from an academic talk Brandon gave at the 2019 National Evangelical Philosophical Society Conference. A recording of that talk is available at

Book Highlight*

One of the foundational pillars of a Christian worldview is morality, which Christians derive from the Old and New Testaments.  But it can be challenging figuring out how instructions given in biblical times apply to Christians today.  There are everyday issues we’re confronted with, like questions about sexual morality, divorce, and alcohol and drugs.  And then there are issues that skeptics raise objections about such as slavery, homosexuality, and the Bible’s view of women. 

New Testament scholar David Instone-Brewer has written Moral Questions of the Bible which helpfully treats each of these moral issues, and many others, and we encourage you to check it out for helpful guidance on these challenging subjects.  Drawing on his expertise in the cultural and historical backgrounds of Scripture, he helps readers uncover the unchanging biblical principles that speak to today’s moral questions.       

“Does the Bible condone slavery? The subjugation of women? The execution of homosexuals? Readers approaching the Bible with twenty-first-century eyes are often puzzled, confused, and even appalled at what they read. Can this really be God’s unchanging word? As a leading authority on the Jewish and Greco-Roman background of the Bible, David Instone-Brewer is an ideal guide for addressing moral and ethical questions related to the application of Scripture. By examining these texts within their unique cultural contexts, Instone-Brewer shows not only that the biblical commands represent a major ethical advance on the cultures of their day, but also that they reflect the encultured revelation of a just and loving God.”

Mark L. Strauss, University Professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary

The Rev. Dr. David Instone-Brewer is a research fellow at Tyndale House, a research library in biblical studies located in Cambridge, England. He previously served as a Baptist minister. His books include Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, and Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament.

Find Moral Questions of the Bible at Lexham Press, Amazon, and other major booksellers.

* This is a sponsored post.


Receive original articles by leading Christian scholars when you subscribe to the Worldview Bulletin newsletter.

Enjoy an ongoing education in Christian worldview and apologetics, delivered weekly and monthly directly to your inbox. For a limited time, receive a year’s worth of equipping for only $3.75 per month!

Get 25% off for 1 year