Is a Mirror Image Virtual?

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Part 1 of 3 in the series Is X-Y-Z Virtual?

When lecturing on The Virtual Space Theory, a question that occasionally arises is the particular case of mirrors. Mirrors provide visual experiences via an object that does not physically contain any visual content. This fact is similar to the idea of virtuality as defined by The Virtual Space Theory. So what is the nature of what we see in mirrors? Is it or is it not virtual? This is indeed a confusing matter, and the following discussion about it, therefore, is suitable mostly for readers who are already somewhat familiar with The Virtual Space Theory.

Before entering this discussion, let’s begin by accurately addressing the topic using the terminology of The Virtual Space Theory. According to the Theory, the term ‘virtual’ describes visible objects that are located inside of virtual space. Virtual space, in turn, is defined as the visible space we can experience through pictorial objects such as paintings, photographs, and films, or what The Virtual Space Theory generally calls devices of illusion. The question before us, then, is whether or not mirrors can also be considered to be a type of ‘device of illusion’ through which virtual space can be experienced.

The Virtual Space Theory defines a device of illusion as a physical arrangement of physical matter which allows a person to experience through it something that is not physically there – the actual location of what is seen through it is within virtual space. However, a close comparison of this definition of devices of illusion to the nature of mirrors reveals two major differences:

Firstly, even though a mirror is indeed a physical object, it is not quite an ‘arrangement of matter’ in a similar way that paint on canvas or pixels on a screen are. The surface of the mirror is of course material, but the particular visual pattern that it presents is not part of the object itself – it is rather a redirection of light that originates elsewhere. That is the whole purpose of a mirror: to forward the visual pattern of light that reaches it with as little influence over that visual pattern as possible. As for a device of illusion, light either bounces off it (canvas, paper, etc.), emanates from it (LCD screens), or is projected onto it (projection screens). Yet in either case, the particular visual pattern of the device of illusion is not inherent to the ambient light that comes from its environment – it is inherent to the surface itself. This is due to the essence of a device of illusion: to present a crafted (essentially) flat pattern which can be visually interpreted as if it were showing objects in a space.

The second difference is that even though what is seen in a mirror (similar to devices of illusion) is indeed not located ‘physically there’ where the mirror image makes it seem to be, it is nevertheless located within the mirror’s physical environment. A possible exception is a distorting mirror – as seen in the example below – which makes the place and its contents seem altered in some way. Yet even then, the resulting image is still fundamentally dependent on the mirror’s physical location. A device of illusion, on the other hand, has no such limitations on the visual contents that can be seen through it. It can present any virtual place as long as the visual pattern can be arranged to make it seem as if that virtual place was located just behind the device of illusion’s surface.

The close relation of mirrors to pictorial illusions has made them a recurring motif in the works of many artists, as seen in this example by M.C. Escher. According to The Virtual Space Theory, since it is a pictorial image, of course everything that is seen in it is located inside of virtual space. Yet in this context, our interest is rather in understanding the scene which it presents to us, and so we should approach it as a suggested physical experiment. Therefore, if you were to hold such a spherical mirror in your own hand, we could surely say that the mirror and your hand are physical objects, but what about the person reflected in the mirror and the space behind them?

According to the above analysis, then, the visual contents seen in a mirror are not in virtual space and they are not virtual. What mirrors show are simply physical objects, which in addition to their direct visibility, also have a visual reflection in a mirror. The actual location of these objects, however, is nearby (or not so near) in physical space. Such a visual phenomenon is indeed fascinating, yet it is very different from that of pictorial illusions as defined by The Virtual Space Theory. The term ‘virtual’, therefore, despite its current popular use, is both unrelated to the case of mirrors and unnecessary for its understanding.

It is an age-old phenomenon, and it has an equally old term for describing it:

A reflection.

“Inception”: The Architecture of Mental Space

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At first glance, the film Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) seems to be a perfect embodiment of the ideas presented by The Virtual Space Theory: The film deals with visual places that have no physical existence; the means by which they might be accessed; the role of the architect who designs them; the rules that govern them; and the nature of the resulting experience of their visitors.

And yet, no matter how strong the apparent match may be, the actual relevance of this film to The Virtual Space Theory is surprisingly limited. Not that I am criticizing the film – I actually found it excellent in many respects. Yet its main value for this blog lies rather in the opportunity it provides to clarify what virtual space is not. In case you have not yet seen the film, this post does not include any plot spoilers, but it does analyze its underlying premise.

The following is the film’s official trailer:

First of all, let’s get the obvious out of the way. According to The Virtual Space Theory, since Inception is a film, then, just like any other film, what we experience through it is located inside of virtual space. That is, whether you see it on the big screen in a cinema theater, on the smaller screen of a TV, or even on the tiny screen of an iPod, the visual content of what you are seeing through the screen is not located right there and then in the same space in which you are. You are inside of physical space along with the chair you sit on and the screen you are looking at, whereas the content of the film – regardless of how, where, or when it was made – is inside of a whole other kind of space. That other kind of space is what The Virtual Space Theory refers to as ‘virtual space’: a visual, publicly accessible, yet non-physical space.

Now that that has been dealt with we can discuss the film’s storyline and the kind of places it actually aims to present.

Inception is about dreams. And dreams, as we know from personal experience, are private. According to The Virtual Space Theory, the visual content of dreams is found inside of a third kind of visual space that is clearly distinct from both physical space and virtual space, and which it calls ‘mental space’. The visual experience of what is inside of our mental space is ours alone, and we cannot share it with others, no matter how much we may sometimes wish to do so. In fact, this desire to share that which is non-shareable by definition is precisely what lies at the heart of the inspiration to make art – which might then take the form of a pictorial image such as a painting or a film, which are publicly shareable.

A key characteristic of science fiction is that it takes a rule from the world as we know it, proposes a technological means to overcome it, and then builds a whole story upon that alternative premise. The film Inception proposes the hypothesis of shared dreaming – that is, the rule which it rewrites is that dreams are in fact private. It introduces questions such as ‘what if dreams could be shared?’ and ‘what if the visual content of dreams could be artificially constructed?’ It therefore proposes the existence of a machine that people could be wired up to intravenously in order to join each other’s dreams, and that the places in which the dreams would unfold could be planned in advance by an architect.

From there on, the film explores further consequent complexities, such as the ability to change dreams as they happen; the structure of dreams within dreams; the differences between the roles of the designer of the dream, the dreamer himself, and those who join in his dream; and the possibility of being hooked up to such a machine unknowingly. In the process, the film proposes fascinating answers to these questions and presents some ingenious examples of what ‘dream architecture’ might look like, as can be seen in the trailer above.

According to The Virtual Space Theory, however, none of that has anything to do with virtual space (apart, of course, from being visually presented to us through a film). To begin with, the film’s interest in the prospect of shareable dreams stems precisely from the fact that in reality they are not. Furthermore, even within the film, it is precisely the private nature of dreams which gives significance to the idea that someone could break into them. If they were as public as virtual space is, breaking in would not be as much of an issue. Second, even if the film’s proposed fictional technology did actually exist and mental space were to become shareable, this would still not mean that it is now just the same as virtual space is. They are still two fundamentally distinct spaces.

Inception’s dream-sharing hypothesis surely challenges The Virtual Space Theory’s principle that a key distinction between virtual space and mental space is the different scopes of their accessibility: public vs. private. Nevertheless, the film does not negate this principle completely. Mental space still remains essentially a private space, even if it is somehow broken into. That is, mental space has an owner, whereas virtual space does not. The film clearly shows how each dream has its own designated dreamer, and that it is his private mental space that is being shared with the other participants. In other words, having guests over in your living room still does not make it the same as a public café.

Furthermore, the technology proposed by the film does not claim to create dream states. Rather, it relies on the existing functionality of dreams as we know them to be, and only suggests that they could be shared, manipulated, and hijacked. Yet they remain dreams – visual experiences which we have inside of our private mental space when we are asleep.

A possible connection that Inception does have to virtual space, however, can still be found at a metaphorical level. One of the interpretations of the film is that its presentation of artificially created dream experiences is made as a poetic metaphor for the process of film production. Thus, the assembled team which fabricates and controls the dream stands for the members of a film production crew, and the target dreamer for whom it is intended stands for film audiences. In that sense, the film uses the notion of dreams to show us what filmmakers would love to do but in reality cannot. Sharing dreams is not part of our reality, but sharing virtual places is. Watching films – that is, viewing the same publicly available virtual places – is indeed about as close as we can come to the hypothetical experience of dream sharing.