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Wildman, Wesley J. “Evaluating the Teleological Argument for Divine Action."

But can we make a connection between the appearance of purposes or ends in nature and the reality of divine action by arguing that such ends indicate genuine teleology and that such teleology is a mode of God’s action? Wesley Wildman calls this position “the teleological argument for divine action” and provides an extensive analysis of its problematic status. Its more aggressive form as a design argument, as given by William Paley and Alfred Russel Wallace, has been undermined by evolutionary biology, but more modest forms are still possible. Wildman claims that no detailed, supportive argument from biology to theories of divine action can be given, nor can evolution destroy such theories, but biology can influence them to some degree. The principle reason is the “metaphysical ambiguity” which effects each of three major steps in the argument, though it is generally left unnoticed.

Before proceeding, Wildman distinguishes between apparent and real ends, and between open-ended and closed-ended processes. In addition, given the dubious aspects of Aristotle’s use of final causes and the equally unnecessary abandonment of teleology in contemporary causal explanation, he includes a four-fold schema regarding teleology. 1) Against Dawkins, who argues that ends are only apparent, Wildman cites Monod’s views about teleonomy and chaos. 2) Given that complex systems are open-ended, he asks whether one specific end can be achieved, and by an intentional agent? 3) Moreover, are high-level characteristics of living systems due to the complex external arrangement of their parts, or to the emergence of genuine internal relations? 4) Is teleology expressed in the laws of nature, in chance, or in some basic constituent of nature like mind?

Now Wildman turns to the first stage in the argument. Given that the appearance of ends in nature is ubiquitous, can we establish that real purposes give rise to them? And preliminary to this, are apparent ends in nature only merely apparent? According to Wildman, modern biology has produced the strongest possible reason for answering these affirmatively with its use of efficient causal explanations of apparent ends. Still the conclusion depends on two points which Wildman carefully criticizes: a principle of metaphysical minimalism and a claim that all ends in nature, outside those achieved by agents, can exhaustively be explained solely by means of efficient causes. His position includes scientific and philosophical arguments about the sufficiency of efficient causal explanations.

The second stage requires a metaphysical bridge between real ends in nature, as in the preceding stage, and broad teleological principles which can be connected with a theory of divine action. The problem here is that some teleologies are not amendable to such theories. Foremost is Aristotle’s metaphysics, with its unmoved prime mover. Others include the Chinese concept of li, the Buddhist view of a purposive nature without God, and theistic mystical theology.

In the third stage Wildman traces the links between metaphysical contextualizations of teleology and theories of divine action, stressing the metaphysical ambiguity which complicates these links. If the locus of the teleological principle is natural law, divine action can only involve the universal determination of natural possibilities and the ontological grounding of nature. If the locus includes chance, divine action can be expressed more directly. If it also includes the constituents of nature, God may offer the initial aims to actual occasions, or the material conditions for the emergence of self-organizing systems.

According to Wildman, then, the teleological argument for divine action is not easily established. There is no unbroken chain of implications from apparent ends in nature to real ends to fundamental teleological principles to the modes of divine action. Additional premises are needed to connect the chain, and none of these is furnished by biological evolution. Moreover, there are profound teleological visions that are antagonistic toward divine action and are equally well supported by evolution. The failure of the teleological argument is located in its underlying metaphysical ambiguity. On the other hand, apparent purposes in nature are not incompatible with teleological theories of divine action; indeed, the implications run more smoothly in this direction. In closing, Wildman offers a final conjecture: if one’s premise is that the universe is meaningful, then one is led to affirm that the universe has an overarching teleological sweep. Alternatively, those popular writers on biology who avoid postulating a fundamental teleological principle must either assume that the cosmos is absurd or refuse to consider the implications of their premise.

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