Who Wants to Sell a Soul?

In the comments section for a Q&A with professional skeptic Michael Shermer, a reader named Caleb B. writes:

Here’s my question: what is it about the idea of a soul that even people who confess to not have one are hesitant to sell it? I have been trying, for the better part of ten years, to buy a soul. I’ve offered a dollar amount, between $10 and $50, for someone to sign a sheet of paper that says that I own their soul. Despite multiple debates with confessed atheists, no one has signed the contract. I have been able to buy several people’s Sense of Humor and one guy’s Dignity, but no souls. Additionally, will any Freakonomics reader take me up on this? I’m willing to spend $50 on souls.

He has so far received at least one offer, from reader Jared Doom:

Caleb B., I will absolutely sell you my soul. To be fair, this won’t preclude me from selling it again to other suckers who (a) believe in souls and (b) believe they can be readily transferred on purchase. To be clear I’m offering because I don’t believe (a)

If nothing else, perhaps this blog has a future as a market for hard-to-purchase goods?

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  1. Roger says:

    I will take your offer Caleb B. with the same conditions as Jared Doom and with the understanding that buying my soul does not give you any sort of control over my actions,choices, my life. Is this blog able to arrange private communication so that this transaction can be realized?

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  2. Tristan says:

    I think that the provision of “I can sell it again” is the main stumbling block. People buying souls are only interested in being the first one to buy it (the assumption being that once you’ve sold it, you can’t sell it again). I would gladly sign a piece of paper agreeing to sell someone my soul, but if I know that I can only do it one due to a restriction the buyers place on themselves, I’m going to want to maximize the amount I get for that one time – in terms of both money and the value of the story. I don’t think that $50 would be sufficient to give up the option to sell my soul for either more money or for a more interesting story.

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    • Seth says:

      ‘I think that the provision of “I can sell it again” is the main stumbling block.’

      I agree.

      I’d word the reason differently. This condition says that the soul is only sold if it doesn’t exist. Otherwise, the original owner keeps it.

      In other words, Doom (what a name for a fraudulent soul-seller) is saying “give me $50!”

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  3. Jeff says:

    I would offer to sell mine, but if you believe in a soul and I don’t, why should I sell it for $50? It might have no value to me, making any offer theoretically better than the utility I’m getting out of it, but it must have more value to a believer. Maybe I should auction it.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

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  4. sal says:

    I am an atheists who would never sell my “soul” for the same reason I won’t sell the Brooklyn Bridge to someone who wanted to buy it from me. It strikes me as a kind of fraud and I would feel uncomfortable in profiting from it.

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    • BL1Y says:

      But, in this case both parties are on the same page. You’ve disclosed that you don’t believe you have a soul.

      This isn’t like selling the Brooklyn Bridge, this is like selling any rights you may have to the Brooklyn Bridge, though sides are fully aware that you don’t believe you have any in the first place.

      There’s no deception. Not even the mere appearance of deception. I don’t buy the “I’d feel bad about selling something I don’t have” argument. I don’t know why people won’t sell the souls they don’t think they have, but this doesn’t strike me as the right reason.

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      • Cor Aquilonis says:

        It violates one of my personal morality clauses: “Generally, don’t exploit/take advantage people.”

        I also disagree with the “there is no deception” part of your argument. Just because the seller didn’t deceive the buyer into into buying something the seller believes is non-existent, doesn’t mean the seller isn’t doing wrong by taking advantage of the buyer.

        To extend your metaphor about the Brooklyn Bridge: Imagine Person A “Teller of Falsehoods” tells Person B “Prospective Buyer” that Person C “Guy Who Doesn’t Own The Brooklyn Bridge” owns the Brooklyn Bridge, and that Person B can buy it for a song and make big money on tolls. Person B offers to buy Person C’s bridge, and Person C (who has no influence on Person A), says, truthfully, that he doesn’t own the Brooklyn Bridge, and can’t sell it. Person B says, “Oh, I know you don’t believe you own the Brooklyn Bridge, but I’ll pay you for a piece of paper that says you transfer all ownership rights to me. You have nothing to lose.”

        The real wrong-doer here is the “Teller of Falsehoods,” but Person C would be morally culpable for aiding Person A by allowing Person B’s delusions to persist. I would say the appropriate response from Person C to Person B is “I understand you think I own the Brooklyn Bridge, but I’m not going to take advantage of you by taking your money for nothing. And the person who told you I own the Brooklyn Bridge is a liar.”

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    • Seth says:

      So donate the proceeds to charity.

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      • Cor Aquilonis says:

        Because that makes it all better?

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      • Seth says:

        You changed the premise. sal wrote: “…I would feel uncomfortable in profiting from it.”

        Donating his (or her) proceeds to charity should fix that specific concern, if that was a true concern. No longer would sal be profiting from it.

        Whether that “makes it all better” was not what I was addressing.

        As for sal’s remaining stated concern, “It strikes me as a kind of fraud…”, I wonder if and why sal might be opposed to just giving his or her soul up to Caleb for free? That should address both concerns.

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    • Des says:

      So, how about “donating” your soul to him, then? You don’t believe in it, and thus receive no utility from it. Giving it to him would at the least buy you goodwill, and would clearly make him happy. Its kind of like giving a compliment – it costs you nothing and benefits the other person.

      Unless, as some surely suspect, you don’t want to “risk” selling your soul on the off-chance you are wrong about its existence. I think that would be logical. Must belief be black or white? Or, can people “believe” there is no such thing as a soul, while still understand they might be wrong. Like, looking both ways before crossing the street leads one to believe there are no cars coming, but with the understanding that they may be mistaken (blind spot, etc.)

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    • Cory says:

      But Sal, you can give someone a quitclaim deed for any property in the world. Basically, you’re saying I’m conveying to you whatever interest I may or may not have in the property.

      I know this because I am a lawyer. Therefore, by definition, I no longer have a soul to sell. I am, however, willing to give you a quitclaim deed to it.

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      • sal says:

        I wouldn’t sell a soul (or purchase one) for the same reason I won’t buy or sell real estate in Narnia. It just doesn’t seem honest to be involved in such a transaction.

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    • Spinner says:

      So your reluctance to sell your soul because you don’t actually have a soul to sell proves to me that you have a soul after all! And a nice one too. So…how much you want for it >:)

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  5. BL1Y says:

    I would sell mine, but I don’t want to deal with all the legalese, putting in all the appropriate reps and warranties to make sure you don’t sue me later for selling a defective product.

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  6. Trevor says:

    Either:

    1) you do believe in a soul; or
    2) you do not believe in a soul

    If 1), you won’t sell as it is valuable. If 2) you may fear that selling something that doesn’t exist is fraud. Either way, the outcome is no sale.

    I suppose that people may be suspicious of others offering to buy souls, even if they don’t believe it’s worth anything. Imagine if someone offered a huge stack of cash for your cat – you’d perhaps decline, assuming it was more valuable than you initially thought. This is clearly irrational, but people (as we know) are.

    For the record, I’d certainly sell my ‘soul’

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  7. Craig says:

    Apparently he is trying to demonstrate that even atheists secretly believe they have souls, because they won’t part with it for $10 to $50.

    I would argue that he is demonstrating instead that atheists realize $10 to $50 is not much of an offer for a commodity that (presumably) he believes to be valuable beyond measure.

    How many takers would this man get if he offered $500, $5,000, $50,000? If he believes a soul is so valuable, he should offer every cent he has to own one.

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    • Seth says:

      Could be, but I don’t know of an active market with souls trading at higher prices, so I don’t buy the ‘opportunity cost’ argument.

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    • Clancy says:

      Exactly. Why should I settle for $50 when I know it’s worth 1000′s of hours of free guitar lessons (among other things) from the Devil?

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      • Sam_L says:

        If you access to that market, I suspect you are not an atheist – thus your soul is not the type that the buyer wished to acquire.

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    • Aaron deOliveira says:

      I think it also shows that there are real transactions costs. As BL1Y said, “…I don’t want to deal with all the legalese, putting in all the appropriate reps and warranties to make sure…”. In any transaction that involves doubtful ownership and no ability to directly examine what is being sold there are transaction costs that exceed the utility of $50 for that person.

      I imagine if the offer reached $5000 and above, people would find sufficient utility to go through with the transaction regardless of their beliefs in the existence of their soul.

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      • RiKi says:

        A quick update.

        To avoid many of the issues a lot of folks have brought up, Caleb and I settled upon a nominal $1, later changed to $5 (I decided “five bucks” had a nicer ring to it).

        Caleb is mailing me the contract.

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  8. Joe in Jersey says:

    He’s not offering enough money. Even if I don’t believe in a Soul, $50 is pretty chintzy on the odd chance I am wrong. $50 gets me what exactly? Whereas on the .000000000001% chance (my estimate) that there is such a thing as a soul he gets it for eternity (I don’t want to know what he would do with it). I’m sure I have a price, $50 ain’t even close.

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    • Ryan says:

      I think that’s the point. It’s not that most atheists are afraid they’re ripping people off. Nor are they expecting to get a better offer. I reckon the crux of it is that most confessed atheists are ultimately agnostics and are unwilling to take the risk. That is, someone that is 99.999% sure there is no God is still an agnostic.

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      • Cor Aquilonis says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Richard says:

        I agree that its not because of the fear of ripping someone off or getting a better offer. However, I don’t think it is a matter of atheist being closet agnostics. Regardless of belief in God, most Americans have been raised in an environment heavily influenced by Christianity. Even though many have moved away from religion through intellectual reasoning, the myths that were driven into us in childhood still influence our psyche. I am 100% confident that there is no soul but yet I would also hesitate to sell mine for the simple reason that it is taboo. Intellectually I know better but there is still that gut feeling telling me not too. You could interpret this as doubt, or agnosticism, but I view it as a lingering effect of being brain washed for years.

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    • CK says:

      It’s like Pascal’s Wager. There is no gain (in this case, only $50 so virtually no gain) in betting against the soul, and everything to lose (a small chance times an enormous loss is still big). As others point out, the selling price would have to be much higher to offset the chance, however small, that one was wrong.

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      • Howard Brazee says:

        But like Pascal’s wager, it isn’t a two-valued choice. With Pascal, having no religion might allow us to die – but picking the *wrong* religion may send us to Hell. Remember, that is a wager made by non-believers.

        So what are the possible results of selling one’s soul? Are they all worse than not selling one’s soul? What are the odds of each result? Maybe one needs to sell one’s soul in order to be free of it’s non-desirable destination.

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      • Chris says:

        Pascal’ Wager is proof that the fear of being wrong is stronger than the audacity to be right.

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    • Mike Hunter says:

      Bingo!

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    • Brent says:

      I think this is exactly it! If you are a non-believer, the rights to your “soul” are in effect like a call option that you view as being very out of the money. I think most non-believers would agree that there is a chance, though negligible, that they are wrong and the soul exists. In the case they are wrong, the downside could be some form of eternal damnation or servitide – essentially an infinite downside. Any probability multiplied by an infinite downside is still infinitely bad, so the price to offset the infinite downside would have to itself approach infinity.

      In short – $50 isn’t nearly enough. I would actually go so far as to say that if an individual would NOT take the $50, by this logic it would also be irrational for them to take $50K, or even $50M. That said excitement and emotion would certainly win over a deal would likely get done, but it could be one eventually regretted.

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      • RiKi says:

        I’m sorry, but this is not rational.

        Under the conventional layman’s understanding, as an atheist, my soul is destined for eternal damnation anyway.

        What non-damnation outcomes are there for me? Regardless of the nominal ownership, none.

        What if I later undergo a Damascene conversion experience? Under what circumstances does a loving and forgiving God say that this sale prevents the salvation of my soul?

        I see no risk, regardless of the reality of the existence of the soul.

        My offer to Caleb is still good.

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      • Paul says:

        Why would “selling” your “soul” for $50 place you at greater risk of infinite punishment than, say, living your life as if you didn’t have a soul? This is beyond stupid.

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