Don’t Sell Your Soul

Cross-posted from Putanumonit.

You know the lockdown has dragged on for too long when people are selling their souls on Twitter.

Normally the soul-selling is of the NDA-for-a-six-figure-job kind, which is par for the course. But this time it went way beyond that. A self-described desert witch on Twitter offered people $10 in return for their signature on a stringent 54-point contract giving up possession of their souls, whatever that may mean. Twelve people took the deal.

Since I’m a Rationalist, and this happened in my corner of Twitter, and no-one knows how to define this corner except through vague associations with Rationality, and since everyone knows that Rationalists are atheists who don’t believe in souls, a common reaction was that the Rationalists are at it again.

But the actual Rationalists who chimed in seemed unanimous that selling your soul to a desert witch on Twitter is a really dumb thing to do. Even if in the grand scheme of things this is all just online silliness, I think it’s a useful case study of the difference between the popular conception of “rationalists” and someone who actually spent years in the community contemplating Rationalist questions of knowledge, confidence, and decision theory.

And so I would posit that Rationality is knowing better than to sign a contract selling your soul for $10, regardless of whether you believe in souls.

I don’t speak authoritatively for all “Rationalists”, of course. No one can really do that. I’m using the term because before I knew about Rationality the most I would’ve been able to say about selling your soul is that I have a hunch that it’s dumb. Rationality introduced me to many frameworks that can explicate why exactly is dumb. Since frameworks make for better blog posts than hunches, below are the Rationalist physical materialist reasons not to sell your soul.

Advocatus Diaboli

Let’s start with the devil’s case. Why may it be a good idea to sell your soul for $10?

One possible reason: it’s just a performance, art for art’s sake. I certainly believe that art deserves its sake! But it’s important to note that in this case Liminal Warmth, the soul proprietor, is the artist. She came up with the idea, she drew up the contract, she decides what to do with the souls. The seller is hardly a co-creator in this, they’re more of a prop. This is somewhat akin to letting a tattoo artist you don’t know ink whatever they want on your back. It’s art, sure, but it’s a very imprudent way to contribute to art on your part.

Another common reason that people brought up is that this is credible atheism signaling. I can imagine that if someone is surrounded by atheist friends who for some reason constantly suspect them of being a closet believer, this stunt will convince them of the sincerity of one’s apostasy. But it’s easy to signal atheism by committing some sin that will only be punished by God, if they exist. Curse God’s name in an empty church or whatever. There’s no reason to signal atheism by signing a contract with an actual person who pays you actual money for it.

Someone commented that being against soul-selling is a weak signal that I am unsure about the existence of souls. This argument has merit. Rationality is the art of not pretending you don’t know things. Pretending you’re not sure about the existence of souls when you’re a functional atheist is fake humility, a social defense mechanism as opposed to good epistemology. But there’s separate intellectual humility about being sure that you’re answering the right question. My arguments in this post are completely independent of the question of existence of magical souls that go to heaven or hell or are reincarnated or whatever.

But before we get to complex issues of meta-humility, let’s start with the basic numbers.


$10 is a very bad price for your soul. It’s not a lot of money. But it’s a lot more than zero.

As a simple matter of finance, signing away your soul is giving up on the option of selling your soul at a later date for a higher price. Just two days after she filled her roster of souls for $10 each, Lim has offered me $22 for mine. That’s an appreciation rate of 120% in just two days! At this rate my soul will be worth more than Bezos’ entire fortune in just over two months, and I haven’t even shopped it around yet. Taking the first offer you get for an item you can’t replace is just bad business, regardless of what the item is worth to you.

But $10 is still money, and accepting it binds you to the contract. Which leaves one with two options: to abide by the contract or to disregard it.

Abiding by the contract is really bad. Section IV.E obliges the seller to “defend and support the Buyer’s claim of ownership […] to any person who challenges them on the matter of the Soul’s ownership”. Does this compel the seller to respond to all the tweets attacking Lim for this project? Defend her honor in single combat? Did they ask what it means before signing?

IV.N states that the seller “agrees to willingly act in accordance with the Buyer’s wishes subject to the rights and obligations provided by a record in any such ledger” The seller of course doesn’t decide what the ledger is and which wishes it obliges them to act in accordance with. The scope of the obligations this contract imposes seems constrained mostly by Lim’s personal goodwill.

Disregarding the contract is much much worse.

Outside of a small circle of family and friends, almost any productive cooperation between people is based on contracts and agreements that people are presumed to enter into in good faith. I collect a salary per my employment contract. I have fulfilled 20+ commissions per the promise made on this page. I made dozens of bets online and in person and paid every single one that I lost. I’ve saved thousands of dollars for myself and people I know by borrowing and lending between us with no intermediaries.

There’s no essential difference between my employment contract and a $20 bet I make online. Some contracts may be enforced by a third party, but what compels that third party to participate? Probably just another contract, and their conscience. Ultimately, it’s all about people just agreeing to play by the rules for everyone’s benefit. Both the friend betting me $20 and my employer enter into the deal because of my reputation for honoring contracts, not because they plan to summon violent enforcement. This reputation is immensely valuable to me, and I go to great lengths to keep it immaculate.

Taking $10 to sign a contract that one never intends to comply with is a huge stain on that reputation. The small amount involved makes it even worse — if the person is willing to tarnish their contract-abiding reputation for a mere $10 there must not be much of it left to tarnish. Several people commented that since souls are like totally fake the contract is like totally non-binding. I would think twice about hiring, lending anything, or making any deals with a person who says this sort of thing in public.

Haters Gonna Hate

It’s hard to find a good poll on belief in souls per se, but 89% of Americans believe in God and 72% believe in heaven, the latter probably being a lower bound on belief in souls. And all these millions of people are not going to look very favorably at selling your soul.

No matter what you personally believe, your existence is not independent of those people. There are almost certainly soul-believers among people in your life, although if you’re the sort of obnoxious atheist who’d sell their soul online they probably don’t want to talk to you about it. Divia Eden polled her followers, heavily selected for being at least Rationalist-adjacent, and a third of them said that they wouldn’t marry a person who sold their soul. That’s a lot of respect incinerated with a lot of people.

People chimed in saying that they welcome being disrespected by soul-believers. Thinking that someone having a belief you disagree with on an ill-defined metaphysical topic excludes them forever from mattering to you is crazy. It’s cult thinking. It’s a worldview of us vs. them where a single questionable belief puts someone in the “them” camp.

There’s a difference between doing your thing with a conscious awareness that you risk disapproval, and courting haters on purpose. The latter is vice signaling, and even to atheists vice is not virtue.

The Simulation Argument

There’s good business to be made in buying souls in bulk and holding them for ransom for when some of the sellers find religion or change their mind. If we think that a religious person will be willing to pay $10,000 to reacquire their soul, selling it for $10 amounts to a bet at 1000:1 odds against the chance that either you or someone like a spouse will think differently about souls at any point in your future lives. Whether your reference class is hardcore atheists who later find religion or the number of foundational beliefs a single person themselves will change their mind about throughout their life, these odds are terrible.

It’s a mark of intellectual laziness to be overconfident on subject one put little thought into.

Section I.A of the contract defines a “soul” as “the spiritual, immortal, and immaterial essence of their self which exists independently and distinctly from their material being”. Suppose that in the next few decades humans create technology for digital brain emulation, and as a result the vast majority of activity in the knowledge economy will be performed by “Ems” who may share their earnings with other copies and the original human. A digital emulation certainly exists distinct from a person “material being”, and counts as “spiritual” and “immortal” for reasonable definitions of these words. Did these people just sign away rights to their digital emulations for $10?

It took me 15 minutes from seeing the contract to come up with the example of Ems. If I had months to ponder and dozens of people to consult with about the possible things that would fall under this particular definition of “soul”, I may be comfortable naming a price for signing this contract. But everyone who signed it did so within 24 hours of seeing it, and most of them probably didn’t even put in 15 minutes of actual thought into it.

Just because you can’t immediately think of a reason not to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it, not even for $10.

Newcomb’s Souls

A prime example of the difference between the common stereotype of “rationality” and Rationality as practiced in the LessWrong community is their answers to Newcomb’s dilemma. The setup is this:

A superintelligence from another galaxy, whom we shall call Omega, comes to Earth and sets about playing a strange little game. In this game, Omega selects a human being, sets down two boxes in front of them, and flies away.

Box A is transparent and contains a thousand dollars.
Box B is opaque, and contains either a million dollars, or nothing.

You can take both boxes, or take only box B.

And the twist is that Omega has put a million dollars in box B iff Omega has predicted that you will take only box B.

Omega has been correct on each of 100 observed occasions so far – everyone who took both boxes has found box B empty and received only a thousand dollars; everyone who took only box B has found B containing a million dollars. (We assume that box A vanishes in a puff of smoke if you take only box B; no one else can take box A afterward.)

Before you make your choice, Omega has flown off and moved on to its next game. Box B is already empty or already full.

Omega drops two boxes on the ground in front of you and flies off.

Do you take both boxes, or only box B?

The stereotypical “rationalist”, fresh off an introductory course to game theory of philosophy, says that it’s irrational to leave money on the table once Omega has already departed and takes both boxes. Two-boxing is very similar to selling your soul. It involves accepting a small cash benefit in exchange for a cost that could be zero or could be hugely negative, and is justified mostly by the fact that it’s hard to think about what the cost actually is.

The Rationalist, on the other hand, should walk away with a million dollars (and their soul) instead of one thousand (and $10). The superiority of one-boxing can be formalized mathematically by using a decision theory that is richer than the intuitive one that justifies two-boxing.

I was initially convinced of one-boxing by the casual intuition for that decision theory. Consider that a likely way for Omega to predict your choice is to simulate your consciousness at the moment of choosing. So if you find yourself in the conscious state of making Newcomb’s choice, you should think it equally likely that you are the real person who will keep the money or the simulation inside Omega that will determine the content of box B. Or in other words, that the choice you make “for real” and the choice Omega’s simulation of you makes are one and the same.

Like selling souls on Twitter, Newcomb’s problem may appear to be some esoteric thing that’s of interest only to nerds. But humans always try to guess each other’s behavior and decisions, and they reward and punish each other based on these predictions. Even if other people’s predictions aren’t 100% accurate like Omega’s, they’re still more accurate than chance and depend on the person’s real behavior. The best way to make people predict that you’re trustworthy and reliable is to be that. In any human interaction involving trust and reputation, Newcomb-like problems are the norm:

I know at least two people who are unreliable and untrustworthy, and who blame the fact that they can’t hold down jobs (and that nobody cuts them any slack) on bad luck rather than on their own demeanors. Both consistently believe that they are taking the best available action whenever they act unreliable and untrustworthy. Both brush off the idea of “becoming a sucker”. Neither of them is capable of acting unreliable while signaling reliability. Both of them would benefit from actually becoming trustworthy.

Your life among other people depends to a huge extent on other people’s models of you. If you do things that cause others to model you as someone financially naïve, contemptuous of contracts, callous about being hated, intellectually lazy, and overconfident, you are causing yourself a much bigger harm than is made up for by 10 mere dollars.

Even worse, your behavior informs not only other people’s models of you but your own. If you begin to suspect that a decision you made was arrogant and shortsighted but refuse to correct for it (by offering Lim $50 and a sincere apology in exchange for the prompt return of your soul) you are making yourself much likelier to make arrogant and shortsighted decisions in the future.

What else can we say about simulated models-of-you? These models are spiritual in the sense of tracking your spirit, the sort of person you are and your persistent character abstracted from any particular circumstance. They are immortal, persisting after your death in the minds of others. They certainly exist independently from your material being. So if you’re wondering whether Lim’s definition of souls points to anything “real”, this is the obvious candidate.

And so selling your soul is really bad for your soul, regardless of whether you think you have one.