Feeling Grand, Being Tiny – Existential Thoughts on the Magnitude of the Universe

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(Photo Courtesy Paul Kline, Creative Commons)

Today, I stumbled across this really amazing interactive Scale of the Universe. The interactive scale starts all the way from the tiniest thing we think can be possible, ie “The Planck Length” and moves all the way to a scale of what the see-able universe is. Even then, considering this is the only world we know, and the only world we’ve ever explored this is still an unfathomable range (at least for me). The smallest theoretical distance, the Planck length is 10^-35. That’s

0.000000000000000000000000000000000001 m. The smallest currently measurable distance is 10^-16. That’s

0.00000000000000001 m in size! Consider the average person is

1.7 m tall. Then consider our sun is 1.4 Million Km in diameter or,

1 400 000 000 m. Our galaxy is 1.2 x 10^21m or,

120000000000000000000 m. Heck, our observable universe is 9.3 x 10^26m,

9300000000000000000000000 m, and that’s only what we can observe! The universe is even vaster than that, and if we really do live in a multi-verse, with even more universes like our own, that means the scale is probably even grander than what I have here! The differences in size are so mindboggling, that to consider them completely changes your perspective.

The scales we are talking about are just unfathomable. They make some people feel tiny, insignificant, as if the world does not have any meaning. Even at 1.7 m we are nowhere near the size of our solar system let alone the universe! I do not really understand why that is such a terrifying thought. The idea that we would be so significant to the universe is a more terrifying thought than the thought that we have little to no impact. The fact that there is something grander than us, to me is the most freeing thing in the world. What we do in our lives is not made less important by the fact that we are a tiny part of a large and confusing place. In fact, it is empowering. You are free to live your life outside of some noticeable mechanistic trap, there’s no god to rely on, no ontology, there is just you.

That does not mean we are somehow excused from our actions, and that they do not matter. There are still 7 billion other people on this planet, and to them, to you, and even to me, there are still things we care about, on our own scale. People across the world are dying daily because they lack sufficient access to resources that we readily have worldwide. The fact that there are masses, and sizes, and distances that are larger than our human experience does not take away from our experience. People tend to get trapped in moral relativity when they realize that the universe has no inherent meaning, and that there is no plan for them. When objective morality is stripped away, people are often left in a malaise. Hell, I was trapped in moral relativism for a long time, except my reasoning was based on cultural variance as opposed to spatial grandeur. The trick to escaping that is simple: remember other people exist! That is the existential burden, remembering that while you are free, you are still responsible for yourself and others. Other people exist. Underneath the social constructions, and the privileges, there are real creatures trying to fulfill themselves on this tiny moat of dust. If anything, this should inspire us to work together, not against each other.

Consider that  the smallest measurable distance 1×10^-16, is actually larger than the smallest units of existence in our current understanding of the world. There are quarks, neutrinos, and dark matter, that all interact in ways we can observe, albeit indirectly. All of those things have sweeping consequences for all of existence. They are like the building blocks of the universe, smaller than an atom, and yet, they have such a large impact to play in a grand existence. I do not want to make a false equivalence here. We in no way shape or form, have the same impact as subatomic particles on existence. I want to point out though, that small does not necessarily mean insignificant. We do not have to feel as if we do not exist just because the scales we are talking about are so far removed from our worldview.

There was an interesting SMBC comic recently about current theories on the inner workings of human nature and the world. While I think there are some interesting points, I don’t think that descent into hedonism, aka forgetting the problem exists, is the solution to inherent meaninglessness. While I am not advocating against hedonism, I do not feel that escapism is really the answer to the problem. Instead, I think we need to look outside ourselves, and just take in the wonder. Jason Silva has an awesome video on Layers of Truth, how thinking about ourselves in different ways changes our perspectives. We can choose to look at ourselves as being empty, devoid of meaning, or we can look at ourselves as meaning creators, those that encapsulate our vision of the universe into philosophies of discovery.

The choice is yours. I for one, like to create the world I want to live in. One that aspires for discovering the cosmos and marveling at our place in it. Even though we are so small, we can choose to be grand.

 

EDIT: One of my friends pointed out a few errors. First the comparison of a person to the sun is a comparison of a persons average height in comparison to the diameter of the sun. I did not make this explicit before, and it has been corrected. Second, 10^-16 is the smallest thing we can currently measure, although that might change in the future, so I have added the word current to reflect that.

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