A thoughtful question posed below by philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel over at The Splinted Mind. Gazing in a mirror or reflection is something we all do on a frequent basis. In fact, is there any human activity that trumps this in frequency? Yet, have we ever given thought to how and why we perceive ourselves in space differently to say a car in a rearview mirror. The car in the rearview mirror is quite clearly approaching us from behind as we drive. However, where exactly is our reflection we when cast our eyes at the mirror in the bathrooom?
When I gaze into a mirror, does it look like there’s someone a few feet away gazing back at me? (Someone who looks a lot like me, though perhaps a bit older and grumpier.) Or does it look like I’m standing where I in fact am, in the middle of the bathroom? Or does it somehow look both ways? Suppose my son is sneaking up behind me and I see him in the same mirror. Does it look like he is seven feet in front of me, sneaking up behind the dope in the mirror and I only infer that he is actually behind me? Or does he simply look, instead, one foot behind me?
Suppose I’m in a new restaurant and it takes me a moment to notice that one wall is a mirror. Surely, before I notice, the table that I’m looking at in the mirror appears to me to be in a location other than its real location. Right? Now, after I notice that it’s a mirror, does the table look to be in a different place than it looked to be a moment ago? I’m inclined to say that in the dominant sense of “apparent location”, the apparent location of the table is just the same, but now I’m wise to it and I know its apparent location isn’t its real location. On the other hand, though, when I look in the rear-view mirror in my car I want to say that it looks like that Mazda is coming up fast behind me, not that it looks like there is a Mazda up in space somewhere in front of me.
What is the difference between these cases that makes me want to treat them differently? Does it have to do with familiarity and skill? I guess that’s what I’m tempted to say. But then it seems to follow that, with enough skill, things will look veridical through all kinds of reflections, refractions, and distortions. Does the oar angling into water really look straight to the skilled punter? With enough skill, could even the image in a carnival mirror look perfectly veridical? Part of me wants to resist at least that last thought, but I’m not sure how to do so and still say all the other things I want to say.