In Search of a Life Ethic

The Early Universe According to the Cosmic Microwave Background

Why should we concern ourselves with the big questions? Like, how did we get here? Like, what is the purpose of life? Like, what is our place in the universe? Why bother, when the answer, should you find one, will not put bread on your table, or secure you a roof over your head, or help to advance your career? Not directly anyway.

I maintain that it is important to think about the big questions. Vitally important. Over a lifetime of asking yourself the big questions, you can hope to develop a personal life ethic. And that ethic will be your guide to the big-picture issues that govern your life.

Take the biggest question of all. The universe and how it got here.

I have a solid background in science, though not so much in the area of cosmology. Nevertheless, I believe I have more than just a lay appreciation of this discipline. On this basis, I beg your permission to proceed.

Cosmologists agree that the universe came in existence some 13.8 billion years ago. At this juncture, a tiny sub-sub-atomic quantum fluctuation expanded out of all proportions, by a process known as cosmological inflation, to reach the size of the universe as we now know it. Let’s get this in some sort of perspective. Based on what we can observe, the diameter of the universe is 28 billion light years give or take, but there is certainly going to be a lot more of it out there than what we observe.

If you want to regard the tiny quantum fluctuation as a ‘wormhole’, then an entire universe, including matter, energy, the laws of physics – even space and time themselves – gushed out through this wormhole in less than the blink of a sleepy eyelid. The phrase ‘let her rip’ comes to my mind. The question of what was there before this event is meaningless, because time itself had yet to come into being. Expressions like ‘before this’ and ‘prior to this’ make no sense in such a context.

Welcome to the big bang.

Quantum fluctuations are notoriously random, like a throw of dice. The particular random state, in which this fluctuation found itself at the time the big bang entered the fray, was frozen in place, just like our mothers were fond of telling us would happen if we pulled faces when the wind changed direction. This freezing-in-place accounts for the ‘lumpiness’ of our universe, the lumps becoming the stuff of galaxies and the like, not insignificant lumps by any stretch of the imagination.

A mere 370,000 million years into its eventful life – the merest of trifles compared with its total age today – the universe looked like the picture above. You could almost imagine continents and oceans, but you’d be wrong. The blue bits are not water. They are the colder bits and, accordingly, they are the most dense. The matter in them would eventually clump together under the influence of gravity to form galaxies.

This stunning picture – the earliest map of our very own universe – has been constructed from what is known as the ‘cosmic microwave background’, which is nothing more than the (hitherto) unexplained static and hiss picked up by curious radio astronomers bent over their workbenches.

Now some people would say the pesky quantum fluctuation that started the ball rolling was, in fact, the finger of God. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that God exists. Then, from my knowledge of Him/Her, I would say that He/She is not an interventionist. He/She likes to keep His/Her fingers out of the pie which, in this case, means the universe. This is fortuitous. The universe has, over the years, proved itself perfectly capable of running itself.

The above explanation resonates with me. But I understand some people will nevertheless prefer the story of the finger of God. To these people I say, whatever floats your boat, as long as it can sit alongside the science without subverting it. I may be an atheist, but I’ve no interest in being a proselytizing atheist. Whatever life ethic you choose, whether it involves religion or not, is fine by me, as long as it respects science, gives you the perspective within which you may chart your own course, and makes you better, kinder person at the end of the day.

These are the positive outcomes of a good life ethic.

And what if you don’t see the relevance of a life ethic? What if you just choose to go with the flow? Let me quote William Blake, English poet in the 18th and 19th centuries: ‘I must create my own system, or be enslaved by another man’s.’

In other words, if you don’t take responsibility for your own life, somebody else will. This is the fate of all those confused frightened angry people who, at the bidding of people with seriously bad intentions, have stumbled into a rabbit hole, and now see no option but to lash out at the world in these fraught pandemic times.