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Once when I took a class about culture, the professor began by holding up a twenty dollar bill and asking the students, “What is this?” Some students said, “It’s money.” Others said, “It’s a twenty dollar bill.” Eventually, someone got it: “It’s a piece of paper.” The twenty dollar bill in and of itself is nothing but a piece of nice paper with green ink. By itself, it isn’t money, let alone twenty dollars. This fact presents us with a vital question: If the money isn’t there in the piece of paper, where is it?
Before we answer that question, let me tell you a story. There is a group in South America where the men and women who want to be religious will fast for a year or more (these are controlled fasts). After that time they will be visited by the hekura. The hekura will come inside the person where it will find hills and trees and rivers in which it can live. The men and women who have achieved this state use the hekura to devour the souls of their enemies or to cure sickness in their own village. Here we can ask another important question: How can people think that hekura are real?
Let’s take our question about money first. Money doesn’t exist in the paper; it exists in the sets of institutions and practices surrounding the paper. In other words, that piece of paper is twenty dollars for us because we act like it’s money. As a counter example, think about Confederate “money.” It used to be money but now it’s not — it’s something that people collect as part of a hobby. However, in order to have money, there’s something even more important than how we act. You and I are able to turn paper into money because of culture.
For human beings, what something actually is doesn’t really matter — it’s the meaning that something has for us that’s important. Human beings, by their very nature, can’t accept things simply as they are. Humans must give meaning to things. In fact, we have to give meaning to everything. Whatever it might be, it doesn’t exist for us unless and until we give it meaning. And meaning is never the thing itself.
Think about killing a person — it isn’t the actual act or the fact that a person’s life has ended — it’s the context wherein the killing takes place. Killing can be war, or terrorism, or murder, or accidental homicide, or suicide, or religious sacrifice, or first-degree murder, or execution in response to first-degree murder. Killing can be legitimate or morally wrong depending on its meaning context. Human life doesn’t matter in and of itself; it’s the context that matters.