Recently I read an article on the technology of ebooks and the future of print books. Like most Dominican friars, I’m an avid reader of books, so I think that new technology about books is very important. In some parts of the article, the author contrasted “physical” books with “electronic” books. It seemed so obviously wrong to me—how are electronic books not “physical”? They can’t possibly mean that electronic books are “spiritual.” Matter and energy are both “physical.”
Ultimately, ebooks are just one step removed from print books. Taking it back a step, we can see that written words are signs of mental words. When I read the word “apple,” I take it as a sign which allows me to think about an apple. Electronic books just add one more layer of symbols, which, when retrieved, are able to function in the same way. That both ebooks and print books run up on limitations of space shows us how physical both of them truly are.
The same article marvels at the surprising metaphorical language of downloading ebooks to your “bookshelf.” Since I’ve become a Dominican, my bookshelf has filled up rather quickly. At a glance, I can count about twenty-five volumes that I have just by St. Thomas Aquinas. My electronic bookshelf also has a definite space limit, but the more abstract method of storage allows for a much greater amount of “information” to be stored. My bookshelf might have a limit in the order of hundreds, but my ereader can store thousands of books. Both, however, have real physical limits.
The ideas that the words represent, on the other hand, seem not to have a limit. Besides ideas like “apple” and “animal” that our minds can easily grasp, there are many others, like colors and numbers. These are all possible objects of thought that seem to open up towards infinitude. The bookshelf of my mind, unlike a wooden or electronic bookshelf, seems not to hit up against any hard upper limit.
To illustrate this vast difference further, we can turn to a phrase often leveled against the intricacies of medieval scholasticism: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Those who would offer this criticism should realize, however, that that’s a question no medieval philosopher ever asked, because it is clear to anyone who knows what an angel is that it doesn’t have a body and cannot take up any space. The disproportion between our possible thoughts and the very limited nature of the physical organ that is our brain should be a sign of something similar for us: human thinking cannot simply be the act of a physical organ, even if the brain is the instrument of our thinking.
Books, whether electronic or print, are simply instruments that human persons use in order to think. Their use, however, shows that there is something immaterial or spiritual about the human soul. Reflecting on how marvelous the capacity of the human mind is, St. Augustine said:
Enormous wonder wells up within me when I think of this, and I am dumbfounded. People go to admire lofty mountains, and huge breakers at sea, and crashing waterfalls, and vast stretches of ocean, and the dance of the stars, but they leave themselves behind out of sight.
Christian revelation gives us an even loftier view. That natural infinitude which the human soul opens up on can be elevated by grace to a truly supernatural level: to know God not only as a cause, but in Himself, infinite and perfect. As marvelous as we ourselves are, how much more marvelous must be the sight of Him who made us.
Image: Rudolf von Alt, The Library of the Palais Lanckoronski, Vienna