Hi, I’m Ariel Pontes and I’ve been blogging about philosophy, science, religion and social issues as Ghostless Machine for about 13 years. I have a BA in Computer Engineering, a MA in Analytic Philosophy, and I am active in Humanist organizations in Brazil, Romania, and also internationally. I was chair of the Americas Working Group at Young Humanists International for 3 years, during which I started the Humanist publication Humanist Voices, where I am currently a writer and editor. I am also one of the hosts of Hora H, the first secular humanist podcast in Brazil. The title of the blog is a reference to Gilbert Ryle’s metaphor of “the ghost in the machine”, which he uses in his criticism of Cartesian dualism, a view that I also reject. Recently, due to increasing political polarization, many of my articles are attempts to reconcile the concerns of the far-left and of their often equally dogmatic right-leaning critics, hopefully contributing to a less divided progressive secular-humanist movement.
I’ve always been fascinated by the great questions of life. What are we? Where do we come from? What should we do? Throughout my childhood and adolescence I found answers to these questions in religion, particularly the religion of my grandfather, who was the spiritual authority in the family. His religious beliefs were a blend of Rosicrucian mysticism and the Kardecist spiritism that pervades the Brazilian Southeastern middle-class culture where I grew up. Essentially I believed we were fallen spirits who used to live in a state of perfect harmony with God but that because of our immaturity were tempted to depart from him, leading us to end up in this world full of pain and suffering. The goal of our lives was to mature spiritually and eventually reconnect with God, while helping others do the same. This journey (known in Eastern traditions as “Samsara”) could span many lives as different beings. Failing to evolve spiritually could cause me to reincarnate as a miserable factory-farmed animal in my next life, or as an even more tortured being in a lower, more hellish dimension. Success, on the other hand, could reward me with reincarnating as an extremely rich and breathtakingly beautiful person in the next life, or perhaps and even luckier being born in a higher and more paradise-like dimension. This was the ultimate goal of life for me, so I took it seriously.
By my late teens, however, after a series of failed attempts to become a medium and leave my body using astral projection techniques, I became an atheist. This was a long process that I describe in more detail here. I read articles, books and watched documentaries and debates with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett, who became my heroes. I learned from Dennett that the secret to happiness is to “find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it”. So what should I dedicate my life to? There were many causes that seemed noble, such as fighting hunger, poverty, disease, etc. But whenever I discussed with people about how to solve these problems, I encountered the same obstacle: insurmountable disagreement. As a result, I concluded that if we wanted to solve these problems we’d need to first agree on some basic assumption, because only after that could we work collectively to solve them. I couldn’t content myself, as many did, with the culturally relativistic view that all belief systems are valid and we should simply accept our differences and work to improve the world in spite of our disagreements. Sure, it is important that we also do that, but it didn’t seem at all obvious to me that this is all that we should do. In fact, it seemed quite irresponsible to simply ignore or even oppose valid strategies of improving the world instead of employing them all in parallel. People really oppose abortion in Brazil, for example, because they believe that souls are placed by god into the embryo at the moment of conception.
As I debated about different topics, I found myself making the same arguments over and over again. In 2007, in an attempt to be more efficient, Ghostless Machine was born. The title of the blog is a reference to Gilbert Ryle’s metaphor of “the ghost in the machine”, which had come to my awareness via the anime Ghost in the Shell (more about the title here). According to our best available science, we are all ghostless machines: biological clockwork whose consciousness is an emergent property of our physical substrate. How that property emerges, and where it does and doesn’t emerge (e.g. simple animals, plants, computers, etc) remains an open question still unanswered by science. However, science does give us plenty of reasons to conclude that the idea that the human body is inhabited by an immaterial agent whose decisions are free from the causal chains of biology and culture is nothing but dangerous superstition. Dangerous because it is often a self-serving excuse to indulge in the luxuries of a privileged life that you believe “you are entitled to” while letting millions of people suffer because “they deserve it”.
Today I have a BA in Computer Engineering from PUC-Rio and a MA in Analytic Philosophy from the University of Bucharest. Besides writing on this blog, I am also active in several Humanist organizations. As a member of AUR and ASUR in Romania, I have held a small “ethics club” in Cluj and currently organize a series of public dialogue evenings in Bucharest, where we invite people with different views on a variety of controversial topics to have a peaceful dialogue with an interactive audience. At the international level, I was chair of the Americas working group at Young Humanists International for 3 years, during which I started the Humanist publication Humanist Voices, where I am currently a writer and editor. I am also one of the founders of the Brazilian Humanist group Humanistas Brasil, and one of the hosts of Hora H, the first secular humanist podcast in the country.
In the early days of the blog, when I was a freshly self-discovered atheist among mostly religious family members and classmates, most of my arguments aimed to persuade religious or undecided people to adopt a naturalistic worldview, and to provide responses to the common arguments made against my anti-religious views. As I started to exhaust my arguments and meet more and more atheists, I started witnessing more and more debates that concerned a variety of political issues and often divided atheists. Although I still believe promoting a naturalistic worldview is important, I have lately found myself writing more and more about controversial topics unrelated to atheism. I believe the political polarization brought by the age of social media is one of the biggest problems faced by our society today. Global problems must be solved collectively, and in order to solve a problem P we must first agree that the current state of the world is S1, that S1 is bad, and that there is at least one other state S2 that would be better. Only then can we proceed to collectively transform the world from S1 to S2 collectively. If even progressives and secular humanists are divided, it is hard to imagine how things could improve. Much of what I’ve been writing about lately, therefore, is an attempt to bridge the gap between aggressive and self-righteous woke leftists on the one hand, and arrogant self-proclaimed rational centrists with latent alt-right tendencies on the other.