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Tom Cruise on Aliens

    Tom Cruise was asked by a German publication if he believes in aliens. Of course he does! That's like asking Paul Prudhomme if he believes in butter.

    Cruise said: "Yes, of course. Are you really so arrogant as to believe we are alone in this universe? Millions of stars, and we're supposed to be the only living creatures? No, there are many things out there, we just don't know."

    Let's parse that, noting right off that this blog item is a transparent attempt to drive traffic by mentioning Tom Cruise.

    Cruise's statement is self-inconsistent. His last phrase -- "we just don't know" -- is the correct one. The preceding statements are presumptuous. If he doesn't know, then how can he say "of course" there are aliens? [The Style section had an item on this yesterday in the Namesy Faces column, and in this version, Cruise says, "There are many things out there we just don't know." The version with the comma makes slightly more sense, though it's sometimes very hard, when doing an interview, to determine whether someone has actually spoken with a comma -- or, to use the technical term, commatically.] Next, he twists the question into a discussion of the reporter's alleged arrogance. This is the classic maneuver by anyone trying to make a claim about ET: That any skepticism about ET is a sign of a character flaw. Cruise then conflates two issues: The possible existence of extraterrestrial life and the possible existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Finally, the journalist probably wanted to know if Cruise thinks aliens are here on Earth; his response on that is unclear. Were I to care about Cruise's beliefs, I'd want a clarification about the location of the aliens that of course exist.

   One more thing. I actually agree with the gist of what Cruise said. Maybe I should have noted that earlier. [I didn't want to take the edge off the outrage by mentioning this, I guess.]

    In a large universe there's no obvious reason why there couldn't be intelligence out there. It's all speculation, but it would be amazing if intelligence were unique to Earth. I like Earth, it's a great planet (compare it, for example, to Neptune -- a gaseous waste of perfectly good matter), but there is increasing evidence that rocky planets like Earth orbit other stars. Add liquid water, some complex carbon-linked molecules, seems like you're halfway home. As Cruise said, there are "millions" of stars, just in our little corner of the Milky Way galaxy, which actually has something like 100 billion stars, and is just one of at least tens of billions of galaxies, indicating that the Creation was prodigious to say the least. Our universe may be just one of many in the Multiverse. So if you accept that what happened here could happen elsewhere, it's very hard to run the numbers through the Drake Equation (even if you are conservative and assume that Earth was very very lucky to remain habitable for four billion years) and get only one intelligent species. The longevity factor in the equation is the tricky one, since, based on our one example of supposedly intelligent life, even technological civilizations tend to have leaders who are total ding-dongs and don't even believe in science and shrug and guffaw and go back to hitting their 3-wood when told their planet is going to heck in a fossil-fuel-powered handbasket. (Note: Technically the D.E. calculates the number of intelligent communicative civilizations; that gets very guessy, because you could argue that smart creatures wouldn't intentionally announce their presence in the dark woods of outer space). This item is dragging on, so I'll stop there, adding only that this is all just guesswork, and that the Drake Equation is, as Jill Tarter has sagely noted, merely a way to organize our ignorance. To claim more knowledge than that would be...well, arrogant.

By Joel Achenbach  |  July 1, 2005; 11:24 AM ET
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