At the end of 2018, when I published this excerpt, I wrote to Professor Dyson to ask whether his enlightenment had stuck with him for the whole of his long life. He wrote back and said that it had. Our brief emails are reprinted at the bottom of this page.
Like everybody else at that time [1938, the year before World War II began in Europe, when Dyson was 15], I worried a great deal about the approaching war. I was not concerned about winning it or losing it. It seemed then that there was equally small chance that anything worth preserving would survive the war, whether we won it or lost it. The war was for me an unconditional evil. I was concerned only to do whatever I could to stop it from happening. And the only way to stop it was to change the hearts and minds of the warmakers on both sides. It was clear that only a radical change in their way of thinking could do the job.
I tried hard to understand the deeper causes of the hatreds that were driving us to war. I concluded that the basic cause of war was injustice. If all men had a fair share of the world’s goods, if all of us were given an equal chance in the game of life, then there would be no hatred and no war. So I asked myself the age-old questions, why does God permit war, and why does God permit injustice, and I found no answers. The problem of injustice seemed to me even more intractable than the problem of war. I was gifted with brains, good health, books, education, a loving family, not to mention food, clothing, and shelter. How could I imagine a world in which the Welsh coal miner’s son and the Indian peasant could be as lucky as I was?
Enlightenment came to me suddenly and unexpectedly one afternoon in March when I was walking up to the school notice board to see whether my name was on the list for tomorrow's football game. I was not on the list. And in a blinding flash of inner light I saw the answer to both my problems, the problem of war and the problem of injustice. The answer was amazingly simple. I called it Cosmic Unity. Cosmic Unity said: There is only one of us. We are all the same person. I am you and I am Winston Churchill and Hitler and Gandhi and everybody. There is no problem of injustice because your sufferings are also mine. There will be no problem of war as soon as you understand that in killing me you are only killing yourself.
For some days I quietly worked out in my own mind the metaphysics of Cosmic Unity. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that it was the living truth. It was logically incontrovertible. It provided for the first time a firm foundation for ethics. It offered mankind the radical change of heart and mind that was our only hope of peace at a time of desperate danger. Only one small problem remained. I must find a way to convert the world to my way of thinking.
The work of conversion began slowly. I am not a good preacher. After I had expounded the new faith two or three times to my friends at school, I found it difficult to hold their attention. They were not anxious to hear more about it. They had a tendency to run away when they saw me coming. They were good-natured boys, and generally tolerant of eccentricity, but they were repelled by my tone of moral earnestness. When I preached at them I sounded too much like the headmaster. So in the end I made only two converts, one wholehearted and one half-hearted. Even the whole-hearted convert did not share in the work of preaching. He liked to keep his beliefs to himself. I, too, began to suspect that I lacked some of the essential qualities of a religious leader. Relativity was more in my line. After a few months I gave up trying to make converts. When some friend would come up to me and say cheerfully, “How's cosmajoonity doing today?” I would just answer, “Fine, thank you,” and let it go at that.
In the summer vacation I made one last attempt at a conversion. I asked my mother to come out for another walk along the dike and I laid before her my message of hope and glory. She was obviously very happy to see that I had discovered there are more things in heaven and earth than differential equations. She smiled at me and said very little. After I had finished talking I asked her what she thought about it all. She answered slowly, “Yes. I have believed something rather like that for a very long time.”
Text copyright © 1979 Freeman J. Dyson
Freeman Dyson (1923-2020) was a famous theoretical physicist and mathematician. At the time of his death he was professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study.
December 15, 2018
Dear Professor Dyson,
I read recently with great interest your remarks in Disturbing the Universe about enlightenment and Cosmic Unity.
I’m curious to know whether your enlightenment stuck with you during your entire life, and whether it developed and grew deeper.
If you’ve written more about this subject elsewhere I would be grateful for a pointer to it.
(Freddie Yam, editor, https://realization.org)
Professor Dyson’s reply:
January 14, 2019
Dear Freddie Yam,
Thanks for your message. In a long life there are many ups and downs, but the basic attitudes do not change. Eighty years later, I look back on the “Cosmic Unity” episode not as a youthful folly but as a lasting gift. I wrote a little more about mind in the universe in other books, but not much. My book “Infinite in All Directions” was a set of Gifford lectures given in Aberdeen, with only one chapter about science and religion. The main point is that science and religion are two windows looking out at the same universe, but we cannot look through both at the same time. They give different and complementary views. The world is too large to be understood from a single viewpoint. But I like to keep my science and my religion separate. I am now traveling away from my books and cannot give you an exact reference for the “Infinite in All Directions” book. You can easily find a reference to it on line.
With all good wishes for the new year, yours sincerely, Freeman Dyson.
This page was published on December 12, 2018 and last revised on April 25, 2020.