Soul Possession: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: killthebird)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Soul Possession.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.) This kicks off a new season of original podcasts, marking the end of the hour-long “mashupdates” we’ve recently released.

This episode grew out of something that happened on this blog a while back. We had run a Q&A with Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine. In the comments section, a reader named Caleb B. wrote:

Caleb B: 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.

We highlighted Caleb’s request in a subsequent blog post and soon enough, he did find a seller, named Bruce Hamilton. This led us to a simple but profound question: In a world where nearly everything is for sale, is it always okay to buy what isn’t yours?

You’ll hear from both Caleb and Bruce in the podcast. For instance:

BRUCE HAMILTON: One of the first things when I realized that there was a guy out there that would produce real money, my first thoughts were wow, if there’s a guy who’ll pay fifty I wonder if there’s someone who will pay fifty-one. I even noticed that eBay has a policy against selling intangible items, so you can’t go auction your soul off on eBay.

We also wanted to explore the moral limits of markets generally. For that, we turned to Harvard law professor Michael Sandel (star of lecture-hall stage and screen) and the author, most recently, of What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets:

Michael SANDEL: A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable tool. It’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence, and prosperity. But as markets and market thinking come to inform all aspects of life, as everything becomes available for sale, we become a market society, which is a way of thinking and being, an unreflective way of thinking and being that just assumes that all the good things in life can in principle be up for sale. And that, I think, diminishes a great many moral and civic goods that markets and market relations don’t honor, and that money can’t or shouldn’t buy.

As an example, Sandel talks about the Tianjin Apology and Gift Center, where you can buy an apology. The company’s motto: “We say sorry for you.”

We also talk a bit about the nature of the soul itself with Mary Roach, the author of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.


ryan

Is the $50 offer still good? I could use some money in exchange for my fictional soul.

caleb b

My soul budget has been depleted. Besides, now that I have some extra souls, my demand has decreased. You CAN donate your soul to soulbuyer908@gmail.com. I'll send over the form and you can give your soul to me if you're looking for a home for it.

Charlotte

I either bought someone else's soul or sold my own in high school, I don't remember which. Hasn't done any harm, either way.

fraac

I imagine a lot of people would have an ethical problem with accepting money for something they don't believe can be sold, either because it doesn't exist or for some other reason.

caleb b

I've heard this many times, but don't think that applies. I am the buyer and I fully recognize that you don't believe you have a soul. I'm buying the possibility that you do.

I could buy the mineral rights to your home believing you have gold under your house. You tell me, "I don't think there is any gold under my house." Then I say, "sure, there might not be, but I would like to buy the mineral rights all the same." There is nothing unethical about that contract.

Pshrnk

What if they do have a soul and it belongs to God or an ex-spouse?

Jaime

I was the first person to sell their soul online. When Ebay first came out I was using it frequently. Apparently they didn't have a rule about intangibles at the time, or it slipped through. I had heard of a couple small news stories about this, but I'm not sure I have any way to prove it.

josh

Would Caleb trade souls with me? I'm serious in asking the question. I'm interested in a soul swap

caleb b

@josh

No, I believe that I have a soul, so I wouldn't trade souls. But I did trade my "irresistible charm" to someone for their soul. We'll see how the after-life sorts that one out.

David Stigant

What would you consider in trade for Bruce's soul? Also, why did you feel that someone else's soul would be worth $50 to you?

Dave Lee

The premise is flawed. Atheists deny the existence of deities, but they don't necessary claim not to have souls.

Mark

Kembrew McLeod has been selling his soul in various forms since the early 90's, and is arguably responsible for eBay creating the policy about no intangible objects.
http://kembrew.com/prank/selling-my-soul/
The people who have gone out to sell their soul definitely have a different viewpoint from those who are out trying to find a soul to buy.

paul o.

50 bucks? If I sell my soul to the devil, I can become an amazing bluesman. I'd rather wait for a bigger and better deal.

Philo Pharynx

I actually came up with a business idea based on souls. You hear about the devil buying people's soul all the time. This implies that souls have value in hell. Therefore somebody who owned lots of souls would probably be better off in hell than an average Joe. So I devised Infernal Enterprises. When you signed up, you would conditionally sell your soul if you ended up in hell. It would go to your sponsor or the next higher in the organization should your sponsor not end up damned. Yes, it's a pyramid scheme for souls.

It would be marketed as afterlife insurance, as it would only apply if you ended up in hell. Should your soul go on to any other afterlife, the contract would have no claim on you.

Sadly, a business based on trading souls in a pyramid scheme would not likely survive the inevitable legal challenges.

Jacob

My only problem with this podcast was the discussion about the Mormon after death baptisms. They were referred to multiple times as conversions, but I don't think even the Mormons believe that. I do think the absurd/abhorrent thought works very well for the the practice. As I understand it, Mormons do the baptisms to give the dead souls the opportunity to convert, or rather in case the dead person has already converted to Mormonism, but needs the physical rite in order to proceed. If the dead person doesn't want to be Mormon, then I think even Mormons agree, the rite is worthless. It means no more than me saying in this post that the whole world is now Buddhist. Unless you believe the Mormons have the power, AND are worried about dead people converting to Mormonism, there is nothing abhorrent about it, only absurdity. The way I view it, is if they are possibly right, then sure, I won't turn down any good will you might want to throw my way.

I also thought the idea of them paying money in order to "convert" souls is funny. Do you, Stephen, own the souls of your ancestors? Who would the Mormons pay their reparations to in order to buy these souls?

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Benjamin

I totally agree. I found the podcast really interesting philisophically, but, being a Mormon, I was a little surprised at how they portrayed the beliefs of my faith. You're correct that we absolutely don't believe that what we do is a "post-humous conversion" as the guest on the show referred to it more than once. We believe one can no more be forced to accept baptism or any other ordinance as they could in this life. Because these ordinances must be done in life, the practice is done as a proxy, and the individual is absolutely free to accept it or reject it. We are strongly encouraged by our church (which, by the way, is actually The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints - "Mormons" is just a nickname) to be sensitive to the requests of close family if they don't want us to perform ordinances for shared ancestors, also encouraged to focus what we do on our own ancestors, and explicitly instructed NOT to perform ordinances for holocaust victims (just to clarify, as that was also alluded to in the podcast) unless we are directly related to them and have permission of living relatives. We want to be mindful of peoples feelings, and I totally understand if the whole idea is a little strange when people hear about it at first. I'm not at all asking someone to take it on board, but if you're willing to be open-minded about things enough to at least think about what we believe and why we do it, you would understand that we're not trying to be offensive -- it fits within our beliefs and theology, and is even referenced (although not expounded on) in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 15:29.

I was a little surprised when I felt like Mr. Dubner was getting kind of personal and attacking my faith without even offering any sort of accurate reason as to why we do what we do. The problem is that we're not trying to do anything with anyone's souls or take possession of them after this life or any kind of nonsense like that. We don't lay any kind of claim on anyone. IF what we believe is true, and being baptized is important, then a loving God would have some way of offering that opportunity to the countless numbers of people who never had an opportunity to accept it or even learn about it. We don't do this because we think somebody did something wrong in their life--we do it so that everyone who hasn't had a proper opportunity to accept it while they were alive can have the opportunity to either accept or reject it (if rejected, then it really doesn't mean anything - we don't know whether or not it's accepted; we're simply concerned about providing an opportunity that wasn't available). Free will is at the heart of what we believe.

I understand that a lot of people don't believe what I believe. I try to understand others beliefs, and when I try to understand why they believe what they believe, it helps me to be a better, kinder person, even if it does nothing to change my own beliefs. Thanks for at least taking the time to try to understand where we're coming from.

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Donovan Kliegg

In 1995 at a Burning Man fund raiser I traded my soul for a share in Hell Corporation. Since Hell Co is a dominant player in the acquisition of intangible resources I thought it prudent to get a piece of Hell rather than let them have my soul for nothing. It's performance was very good leading up to the recession. However, there is a dip (temporary) because the 99% are acting a bit more virtuous than usual.

I'm not entirely stupid though. As a hedging strategy I also acquired a "Get Out Of Hell Free" card from a teutonic shaman.

Bob

Stephen,

Thanks to you and the Freakonomics team for your thought-provoking podcasts!

As a believing Mormon, I wanted to clarify/contextualize the Mormon practice of posthumous/proxy baptisms, which has been somewhat misunderstood by the media at large. The basic idea is this: We believe that in the afterlife, people are free to choose to join a different religion, if they wish (but only if they wish). Now, suppose you are dead and you decide that Mormonism really sounds like a good idea after all, and you decide to sign up. Well, in order to be a Mormon, you need to be baptized by someone with proper authority in the Mormon church. Unfortunately, being dead, you can't really be baptized since you no longer have a physical body. That's where posthumous/proxy baptisms come in. Basically, someone in the Mormon Church (in this life) will perform a proxy baptism in your stead. Then, in the afterlife, you can choose to accept or reject that ceremony at your discretion. Now, since we Mormons in this life have no idea who will decide to accept or reject the baptism in the hereafter, we perform proxy baptisms for the names of as many of our deceased ancestors as we can find via genealogical research. We want all of them to have the chance to accept or reject.

That, I think, is the distinction I wanted to make. Names of people who are baptized by proxy are NOT added to the membership records of the LDS church, nor are they considered to have been "converted" to Mormonism. Rather, we believe that they now have the chance to accept or reject Mormonism in the afterlife, just as everyone has that same chance here. If they say "No thanks" to the offer, then they continue on as is.

Now, there is certainly room for discussion about how some people might view this practice as falling into the absurd or abhorrent categories outlined by Prof. Sandel, but I thought it'd be helpful to provide a more accurate clarification of what the practice actually entails and what we believe. With that clarification, I think the practice is much less like "buying souls" than depicted in the podcast.

Keep up the great work!

Bob

PS - For more official info on Mormon proxy baptisms, see
http://mormon.org/faq/#Baptism|question=/faq/proxy-baptisms/
http://mormon.org/faq/#Baptism|question=/faq/baptism-for-the-dead/

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Vincent

Thanks Bob, I learnt something from you here :-)

Alex

I guess this guy hasn't heard of Hemant Mehta.

Jason

Yeah, all you had to do was google "i sold my soul". Not really hard to find atheists who will separate theists from their money for their so-called soul.

http://www.amazon.com/Sold-My-Soul-eBay-Atheists/dp/1400073472/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1336441146&sr=1-1

Caleb B

Well I wasn't going out of my way to shake down atheists for their soul. It's not like it was my hobby or anything. But if I happened to be talking with someone who volunteered that they didn't believe in souls, i'd casually offer to buy their soul. This was my first attempt at buying a complete stranger's soul and it all started from a simple question on a blog post.

Nicole

I loved this podcast! It was both humorous and theoretical. With all these soul sales occurring, the devil won't have anyone left to tempt. ;-) Keep up the good job, Freakonomics!

Jena

This installment of Freakonomics really caught my attention, because throughout the podcast I expected the topic of Soul X Change to be discussed. I was quite disappointed that the original online "stock market" for the buying and selling of souls wasn't even mentioned!

When I was in middle school, 2000-2001, I introduced my peers to a highly addicting and morally questionable website known then as www.soulxchange.com. Of course, there is nothing more exciting to a 13 year-old than the idea of owning the soul of your friends, or better yet, having the most highly valued soul in 7th grade! (This forum thread captures the excitement about buying and selling souls: http://forums.winamp.com/archive/index.php/t-46936.html)

This website has reinvented itself many times under a variety of URLS including soulxchange.net and most recently soulxchange.us. Here is the description of Soul X Change from it's launch:

"World's First Marketplace For Direct Buying and Selling of Souls

SoulXchange.com, the first and only online marketplace for the sale and purchase of human souls, launches today at www.soulXchange.com. Citing advantages over the bait and bribe method of
soul acquisition that has been employed since the beginning of time, Lucifer referred to SoulXChange as “launching the underworld into the new age and reinventing the war between good and evil.” “SoulXChange empowers the aggregation of not only more souls but higher quality souls at a higher
ROI. This gives us a first-mover advantage over Heaven and what’s his name.”

The site introduces a revolutionary new technique for establishing soul valuations. News and user-contributed stories help the site assess the values of numerous soul attributes, ranging from profession to marital status, which in turn determine the value of souls. Users register their souls and based on
the evaluation of that soul are assigned “SoulBucks.” SoulBucks are used to purchase the souls of other users. Similar to the stock market, the logic is to buy low and sell high. Individuals with the top portfolios will have their soul returned.

“SoulXchange is a unique synergy of frictionless user-centric e-processes and pure evil incarnate,” adds Lucifer. SoulXchange does not mark Lucifer’s first foray into the web. His early invention of the banner ad and the term “viral” have permanently changed the internet world.
SoulXchange intends to follow this path of invention and revolutionary transformation.
“Beware, all ye who enter,” said Lucifer, upon closing his announcement. SoulXchange is built on Microsoft technology, as per an agreement with Mr. Bill Gates made in the late 70's." -Dec. 15, 2000
(taken from: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DebunkCreation/message/13207)

Given the topic of this podcast, I thought it very important to enlighten listeners about the original Stock Market for Souls! You can visit www.soulxchange.us for a look at the modern day Soul X Change.

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Daniel

Happy to exchange my imaginary soul for $50.

Kayla

I'm pretty surprised that no one's mentioned Hemant Mehta's "I Sold My Soul on eBay," (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Sold_My_Soul_on_eBay). He sold his soul in 2006 for $504 - a much better price than I got as a cash-poor high school student out to lunch with her friends: two tacos. We drew up the contract on a napkin.

Incidentally, I've sold my soul multiple times for various low-value trades, etc. Since I don't believe in a soul at all, I'm not sure whether selling it multiple times it is any less ethical than selling it only once. But as I have no idea what the buyers of my, or anyone's, soul intend to do with it (scavenge it to patch up their own souls? mount and display it? resell it - a fix and flip, perhaps?), it's hard to say whether I've actually committed fraud.

Jon

If it is illegal to sell a part of your body like an organ, would it then be illegal to sell your soul?

Reno

I'm an atheist, but what would make you think that an "earthly" contract would automatically transfer the god given soul to someone else. Also, I do not think atheists should not rip cristains off by selling them something that is not there, but caleb needed to be shown that atheists are willing to sell it. I would not sell my soul for more than a dollar and then probably donate it.

caleb b

@Reno

I'll let the afterlife sort out the legality of the contract. The whole thing developed simply because the 15-20 people I have personally met that were confessed and serious atheists would not sell me their souls, even though they didn't believe they had one. I never got a good reason as to why.

Chris

So I guess I can go ahead and remove this blog and podcast from my economics feed. What a shame - it was a good podcast before all the reposts and metaphysical nonsense.

mary

Is my soul worth more if I'm a virgin? Female? Attractive?