Your last book, Black holes and space-time , is intended for children from 10 years. Before talking to them about scientific subjects, you return to the sources of philosophy, is it the basis of any scientific approach?
Aurélien Barrau Alas no. It is even a relatively rare interest and I deplore it. Our obsession with efficiency, profitability, and compliance leads to hyper-specialization in all areas. We leave little room for the unexpected and put into perspective. In these troubled times that we are going through, I believe that it would be more than ever necessary to decompartmentalize thought and dare to question the foundations of our various convictions. Crises often give rise to great intellectual tension. I think that it is on the contrary in these circumstances that it would be necessary to become radically nuanced and not to deny the complexity of the situations.
You borrow from philosophers their propensity for astonishment. How to address children so that science is this tool of wonder and not exclusion, selection?
Aurélien Barrau This is indeed an essential question. It is distressing that for too long mathematics, for example, has been misused as a tool of selection whereas it is rather an immense space of enchantment and creation. How not to love playing with infinity? That said, beyond finding, the solution is not easy to find. I think it is important to promote porosity between the disciplinary fields, to value knowledge beyond their instrumental use, to rehabilitate a kind of right to wander. Perhaps it would be time to be more generous, in a strong sense, in our way of thinking about teaching: in the mode of giving rather than demanding.
You say : "What we seek in science is not the absolute truth" , than "Science is a thought in motion". Should we finish with the idea that science is able to provide "true" and definitive answers? If we take the example of the theory of general relativity, it works (except at the time of the big bang) until we have found better …
Aurélien Barrau Scientific thinking is a thought of doubt and deconstruction. There is no question of discovering eternal truths – I do not even know what that would mean – but of making its way into the full range of possibilities. It's about finding the best description, given the knowledge and expectations of an era. I am surprised that we still often hear that this or that theory is "proven". No theory has ever been, and none will ever be in the natural sciences. Let us not be afraid to assume the temporality and incompleteness of scientific propositions.
By deconstructing a series of oppositions that are the basis of metaphysics – the true and the false, nature and culture, man and woman, animal and human – do you warn against the danger of lending the sciences a normative virtue?
Aurélien Barrau From a certain point of view, yes. The sciences are magnificent but are not intended to encompass the totality of reality: it is far too vast, diverse, rich and multiple. But, above all, what I wanted to question here was the legacy of traditional metaphysics that structured our relationship to the next world of binary couples. This may have an exploratory virtue, but it is obviously also a scathing caricature. The fact, for example, of having thought the human in opposition to the animal – while he is an animal – has been extremely heavy with consequences on all levels. And it is certainly one of the causes of the major ecological disaster that is coming. We can not rewrite our story. But we can not remain locked in these old schemas that are scientifically false and ethically devastating.
How to reconcile this criticism of a scientistic posture, the doubt, the deconstruction, and the fight against the attacks on science, on the part of creationists or climatosceptics?
Aurélien Barrau It is a nodal point. It is quite clear that, in the face of Trump and his clique – for example – a certain scientific authority must be able to be heard. We can not say anything. To deny today the anthropogenic origin of global warming is at the same level of stupidity (dangerousness more!) Than to deny the rotundity of the Earth. Let's be clear: there is no question for me of questioning the reliability of science in such circumstances. On the contrary. But to valorise it in a credible way, do not make it a religion! We must not ignore its limits, its assumptions, its uncertainties. In other words: we must not reproduce, to defend science, the errors and approximations of the obscurantists who deny it.
How can one avoid the two pitfalls of relativism on the one hand, and belief in a monolithic truth on the other? You talk about engaged relativism or "selective multi-realism", what is it?
Aurélien Barrau I think we have to bring in intentionality here. The questioning, the doubt, the deconstruction are necessary and obviously desirable if the intention which underlies them is a deeper, more generous, more rigorous understanding. If, on the contrary, it is a question of finding false pretenses to preserve one's privileges when the evidence imposes a deflection, then of course this fallacious and pernicious doubt loses its meaning. "Selective plurirealism" is a way of not denying the diversity of the real and the relativity of our values, without falling into a "everything is worth" which would confine to nihilism.
You have read a lot of philosophy, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, with whom you made a book, you also dialogue with poets, filmmakers like Claire Denis, with whom you spoke at length for his film High Life . What do these discussions bring you out of your discipline?
Aurélien Barrau They are vital to me, I believe. Theoretical physics is a magnificent nebula. Its ramifications are immense and its borders unreachable. It is nonetheless a simple modality among an infinity of other possibilities. The arts work cognitively, like science. And sciences are articulated to affects, like the arts. There are therefore both gateways and irreducible specificities at all levels. The world is diverse, the ways to apprehend – and recreate – must be too.
In September 2018, you put in place an appeal signed by 200 personalities to save the planet. How do you link your research activity in astrophysics and this citizen activity of whistleblower?
Aurélien Barrau There is no link. I have no institutional competence in ecology. But as a living being, I think I have the right and even the duty to position myself on the essential topics. We live, for example, in a world where eight people hold as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. It's obscene. We also live in a world where 100 billion terrestrial animals (10 times more marine animals) are unnecessarily killed every year in appalling conditions. And we are heading straight for an ecological disaster whose consequences will be appalling. For life in general, for humanity among others, for the poorest in particular.
You insist on the fact that we must act on the consequences and stop arguing over the causes …
Aurélien Barrau Indeed, I think it's essential. Everyone has their analysis on the causes of this end of the programmed world. For some, it is capitalism, for others overpopulation, for others still religion, etc. I obviously have an opinion on the issue and I clearly think that neoliberalism is incompatible with a sustainable future. But the fact is – whether we like it or not – that we will not all agree on the causes. While it's pretty simple to agree on the facts. So let's put an end to collective suicide and we will see, by practice, what is the system that makes it possible to achieve this quickly. Being convinced that ecological and social issues are linked, I hope that if the environmental issue is finally taken seriously, it can serve the social cause with unprecedented effectiveness. After being so badly treated by him, it's finally nature that comes back to help the man. We will not be able to escape without sharing.
What can the policy? What do you say to those who oppose freedom to environmentally binding measures (eg the rise in the price of fuel)?
Aurélien Barrau The law forbids us to kill, to rape, to torture … and that's a good thing! This preserves individual liberties. Why should we be free to commit a "crime against the future" by banning the possibility of a future for humanity and millions of other species? We are not able to self-regulate ourselves, but we are able to enact rules that violate our hubris. You have to go through the law, it's a question of survival. However, it seems to me essential that the strong measures that must be taken are in the light of justice and redistribution. Putting the effort once again on those who already have very little is unacceptable. And this is not only wrong from an ethical point of view, it's unfeasible from a practical point of view. We must engage in a major transition that redefines in depth our being-at-the-Earth and it must be done in the invention of a common that does not reproduce the inegalitarian patterns of the past. Let us leave the mortifying religion of growth: by confusing the end and the means, it has literally distorted the question of meaning and places us today in a situation of vital risk. If the risk concerned only the end of our civilization, it might deserve to be run. After all, life will eventually regain its rights and the world today is far from perfect … But we must not forget that behind the species, there are individuals. If we destroy this world, it will not be just a theoretical apocalypse: people will die, people we know, we love. No cynicism is legitimate about it.
How to invent an ecological policy that thinks interactions, sharing, and that makes everyone feel concerned?
Aurélien Barrau More than a privation, if we succeed in the transition, it can take the form of a re-enchantment. First, because thinking again in nature and no longer at war with it would be, in itself, jubilant. Secondly, because the symbolic system that would allow the implementation of this mutation would lead precisely to deconstruct the values of possession and oppression that today govern a large part of our societies. Finally, because the ecological reason is necessarily also a social name. It is not physically possible to imagine a common future for more than 10 billion people without a sharing of wealth and territories. We have no choice: the future will be united and ecological or it will not be.
The word "ecology" is also insufficient, the question is much broader: it is simply the possibility of a future on a planet that is not devastated. There is no question of "environment" but just existence. We are going through a decisive moment, probably the most important in our history. Let us hope that we will know how not to oppose the various essential struggles which must now be carried out jointly and urgently. The stake is more than immense, it is vital.