A Talismanic View of Evolution
“Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess.”-Baha’u’llah
I have been interested in this quote of Baha’u’llah’s for a while. It is rather well known and used often in discussions about the value Baha’is place on education. What is interesting for me is this word ‘Talisman’. What is meant by this word? I recently have come across another idea from a very disparate field which might shed some light on this subject. Recently Christoph Adami has proposed a new definition for information as a correction to the classic Shannon definition of information. This new idea seems to fit well with the ancient concept of a Talisman.
The standard English definition of Talisman is “an object, typically an inscribed ring or stone, that is thought to have magic powers and to bring good luck.” However this word originates from mid 17th century, and is based on Arabic word ṭilsam, which apparently is an alteration of late Greek telesma ‘completion, religious rite,’ from telling ‘complete, perform a rite,’ from telos ‘result, end.’
If one digs a bit more into the Islamic and particularly the Shi’ite understanding of this word, one finds a very rich and deep type of cosmology which underlies it. In this context a Talisman can be understood as a representation or model of a ‘higher’ object. With this model one can predict or attain some gnosis about the higher object. In this context the statement that humans are “a supreme Talisman” might be seen as a restatement of the idea of “man made in God’s image,” in that within them the absolute is modeled or imaged. So Baha’u’llah quotes Imam Ali in his mystical work “Seven Valleys” : “Doth thou reckon thyself only a puny form when within thee the universe is folded?”
In Shaykhi and Bab’i theology out of which the Baha’i faith grew, the relationship to the divine has at times been cast in terms of successive recursions of Talisman’s. So the prophet is a Talisman for God, the Imam or successor to the prophet is a Talisman for him, the true follower a Talisman of the Imam. This progression of reflection or Talismans, continues down through the grades of existence, through the animal, plant and mineral levels of existence. As a result, everything bears the imprint of the divine. Baha’u’llah says, “He hath entrusted every created thing with a sign of His knowledge, so that none of His creatures may be deprived of its share in expressing, each according to its capacity and rank, this knowledge. This sign is the mirror of His beauty in the world of creation.” (Gleanings CXXIV)
In searching for a good definition of ‘information’, Adami defines information as the “ability to make a prediction better than chance”. This definition, in my opinion represents an important advance over the standard Shannon definition, that relates entropy to information. This is because now we have a way to distinguish useless noise from ‘information’ which has value.
Also with this definition, one now has an effective bridge to biology. It is this type of “information” which is important, if not the most important commodity of the evolutionary process. So the better an organism is at predicting the behavior of its environment and acting on that, the better chance it has in passing on its genes. One could actually generalize this concept to describe the process of evolution and life as a process of reflecting more and more faithfully their environment. Fundamentally living systems develop models of their environment and based on them make predictions which can then be used to preserve and propagate.
On one level the actions of science which revolve around the construction of better and better models of the physical reality, might be seen as embodying the very essence of the evolutionary process and perhaps life itself. Further these models are judged ultimately on their predictive power. The whole scientific project could be couched in terms of the production of Adami ‘Information’. Interestingly this is not too dissimilar from the ancient use of a Talisman, where models of the universe are constructed to enable the user to make predictions or attain some gnosis about reality. From this point of view the work of science and the process of life and evolution could be viewed as talismanic work.
Returning to the quote of Baha’u’llah’s which I started with, the process of education and its operation on an individual can now be viewed as exposing the inherent ‘information’ generating power of the human mind or spirit. Thus education helps move a soul to a state where it more faithfully reflects the realities of the universe and ultimately God.
Interestingly there is another mystical avenue which links the power of the human soul to information. It is resident in the often repeated idea of the word of God and its relationship to existence. In the opening verses of the Gospel of St. John we have, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This association of creation with the divine word is carried even further by Abdu’l-Baha: “The perfections of Christ are called the Word because all the beings are in the condition of letters, and one letter has not a complete meaning, while the perfections of Christ have the power of the word because a complete meaning can be inferred from a word. As the Reality of Christ was the manifestation of the divine perfections, therefore, it was like the word. Why? Because He is the sum of perfect meanings. This is why He is called the Word.” (Some Answered Questions, Pages 205–207)
The Bab also employed this concept of humans representing divine lettering, when he described his first disciples as the “letters of the living”. Thus the body of believers represent letters which join together in the divine Word or manifestation of God. This relationship is somewhat reminiscent of Jesus’s description of his relationship to his believers as part of his true vine “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches” (John 15:1–17). The joining to the manifestation of God, is embodied in the ultimate commandment to “know God and to love him” which is regarded as the ultimate purpose of this existence and could be seen as the culmination of the natural evolutionary process.