Freeman Dyson (1923-2020) was a British-American theoretical physicist, mathematician, and statistician, who became well-known for his work in quantum field theory, astrophysics, nuclear physics, and other areas.
In 1979 he published a book titled Disturbing The Universe, where he shared an experience he had as a child which was life-changing.
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…
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.-Freeman Dyson, Disturbing The Universe
Just a year before his death, in 2019, he remarked in a letter, “Eighty years later, I look back on the ‘Cosmic Unity’ episode not as a youthful folly but as a lasting gift.”
For my Mormon friends, some similarities to Joseph Smith’s First Vision experience, and perhaps mystical experiences more generally, seem to be:
- He was young, about 14 or 15.
- He was worried, concerned, in a distressed state of mind.
- An experience suddenly came upon him that he was not expecting.
- He saw an inner light.
- The light was blinding in its brightness.
- He received answers to deep questions he had.
- He sensed a cosmic unity, oneness, or at-One-ment, a Holy (Wholly) One.
- This divinity seemed to speak to him and revealed ultimate truths about the nature of life and being.
- It seemed to reveal a Savior figure, an ultimate Self, an archetypal Human One, a oneness deep in humanity, whose realization saves us from the world’s problems, solving those problems.
- This One suffers for us all, being in all our sufferings, binding us together into shared suffering.
- The insightful vision seemed utterly and undeniably true, real, objective.
- It was the fundamental Source of all ethics, morals, Love.
- It said how we could repent (metanoia), or change our hearts and minds to realize ultimate Peace.
- He pondered the experience for days afterward.
- He felt called to share his experience with others, and help them also see its profound truth.
- But most others were not interested, and rejected him.
- The experience was life-changing, a gift of Grace.