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?


Roger

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?

Tristan

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.

Seth

'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!"

Jeff

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.

sal

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.

BL1Y

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.

Cor Aquilonis

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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BL1Y

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.

Trevor

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'

Craig

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.

Seth

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.

Joe in Jersey

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.

Ryan

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.

Cor Aquilonis

Oh thank goodness! Here I was, 99.999% sure there is no god(s), and thinking myself an atheist. Thank you, Ryan, for saving me from a horrible mistake. Clearly I'm an agnostic, because...why again?

Robert Joffe

I'll sell my soul to anybody for £30.

Welshboy

I will sell you my soul too, but I will need an offer in Pounds Sterling (payment by paypal will be fine though).
Also, I intend to make like Lord Voldemort and split my soul into several pieces, and in future I may issue further shares in my soul (FTSE: IRSL), should a reissue look likely, I will notify you so that you can make a further purchase to avoid devaluing your holding.

Make me an offer...

North

You can buy souls on eBay.

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Selling-my-soul-Ebay-/220909300492?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item336f386b0c

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Selling-15-my-soul-Need-cash-fix-car-Devil-would-not-take-/180766850099?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item2a168b3c33

eddie

Reminds me of one of my mother's favorite quotes:

“You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
? C.S. Lewis

Who knows?

Adrienne S

It's an interesting concept - to "own someone's soul" - but one must ask; What's the net value of a soul? The Webster dictionary offers the top 3 definitions :

The first 2 are theological at best. You can't touch, see, hear, etc any of these things - rendering them basically useless (unless you've got some power/ability to utilize intangibles I don't know about... )

1. the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life
2. a) the spiritual principle embodied in human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe

3 seems to be a bit more definitive -

3. a person's total self

If we accept Webster's 3rd definition of a soul - that would include the thoughts/actions/ideas of a person - and the body. The two sides to that coin are:
a) if you own my thoughts/actions/ideas - do you own all my intellectual property? (let's say I invent something brilliant - do you own it?/reap the benefits?) Do you also own partial responsibility for my actions? (What if I commit a crime? Do you suffer partial blame/punishment?)
b) Personally - I would like to think that my physical body is worth more than a mere $50. Based on the amount of my gym membership, I'd have to raise the price substantially :)

Thoughts?

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There's another definition, common in Christian theological circles, that says the soul is separate from the "spirit" and constitutes stuff that most of us want to keep: our minds, wills, and emotions (sometimes summarized as "personality").

How exactly do you sell your mind, will, and emotions? Wouldn't selling your will make you the new owner's slave? Wouldn't selling your mind make them own the intellectual property to everything you do or say for the rest of your life? Is it even possible to sell your emotions?

dersk

I'll sign a meaningless sheet of paper for fifty bucks if you like.

Henant Mehta, who writes the Friendly Atheist website, famously sold his soul on EBay.

jimmy

It is illegal in the United States to sell body parts. As the "soul" is traditionally seen as an intangible part of the human body it is therefore illegal to sell within the U.S.
Secondly, the "soul" is considered inalienable, and much like inalienable rights, it cannot be taken away by act of commerce.
Also, some people, even atheists, just don't want some douche bag holding a piece of paper with their name on it. It just looks bad socially.

aepxc

I would be perfectly willing to sign such a soul selling contract even for free. So if anyone believes I have a soul and wants to own it, be my guest...

Benjamin

50$? Don't get robbed . My little brother would buy them from kids when he was in grade school for $10 a piece.

Howard Brazee

Which religion has a theology that says I have the ability/right to sell my soul?

Popular culture has *lots* of stories about how religions work that are different from what the churches say. Which doesn't mean the churches are right (obviously, seeing religions don't agree with each other about much).

But let's say I sell you my soul. Would you treat it worse than I am treating it?

Scott from Ohio

Reading the comments, I think it's interesting that some assume "Caleb B." doesn't believe in souls, and others believe he does.

curtis

If you promise to keep all this between just you and me:

I'll sell you ten souls at $10 each now if you agree to buy another fifty souls at $30 in two months when the company Souls R Us (Which I am underwriting) has its IPO and begins trading.

On top of that, when we begin trading I can sell you 100 souls valued at $30 for a mere $20 each for you to sell on at a profit. The same deal goes out to any other executives in your company, but no-one else.

Also I have a thousand junk souls that I'm going to package into a CDO along with 100 AAA-grade souls, you can get a piece of that action if you like. You don't have to worry about the junk souls; there's enough good-quality souls in there to make sure the deal turns out okay. Of course, I'm not going to tell you this, but I'm secretly betting those junk souls never actually get paid, so I'm covered on both ends and you can eat the cost.

The soul sector continues to be challenged. As a result, I took significant markdowns on my long inventory positions. However, my risk bias in this market was to be short, and that net short position was profitable.

Fortunately, an ex-cochairman of my investment and securities firm is now the Treasury secretary up in Heaven, so once I've pumped-and-dumped this soul bubble leaving everyone else in horrific soul debt, I'm sure Daddy upstairs will bail out my failing and fraudulent business model.

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