Every once in a while a new puzzle or paradox sweeps the Internet. A while ago it was the optical illusion of a dress that was either blue and black or gold and white, depending on who you asked. Now it’s the auditory illusion of Laurel Versus Yanny.
This is a sound clip that originated at the reference website Vocabulary.com as a sample for the pronunciation of “laurel” (as in “laurel wreath”). But a young listener visiting the site for her schoolwork listened to the clip and heard “yanny.” This seems insane to those of us who clearly hear “laurel,” just as the whole “gold and white dress” thing seemed insane to those of us who clearly saw that it was blue and black, so it naturally went viral.
How to explain it? Well, it turns out that if you boost the sound on the higher frequencies, the word “Yanny” pops out. If you boost it on the lower frequencies, “Laurel” clearly predominates. This is why the clip can sound different depending on the device you play it on or the response of your own ear. Younger people are better at hearing higher frequencies, which is why it was teenagers who first brought this to everyone’s attention, while the lower registers are likely to predominate for older listeners.
The New York Times has a great tool that allows you to adjust the predominance of higher or lower frequencies. I find that if I adjust it a little less than one tick to the right of center, boosting the higher frequencies just a little, I can hear either “Laurel” or “Yanny” at will, sort of how you can look at Rubin’s Vase and make yourself see either a chalice or two faces.
In fact, I suspect this is an auditory equivalent of Rubin’s Vase. If you pronounce “Laurel” and “Yanny” and pay attention to how you have to hold your mouth and tongue to make each of the sounds, you will notice that the words are exact opposites of each other. This is what makes the paradox so powerful. On the one hand, it seems impossible that you could get two such different sounds from the same recording. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense if you view them as complementary, as auditory negatives of each other like the figures in Rubin’s Vase.
Ah, but the state of the world being what it is, we can’t just be content to view this as a fun intellectual puzzle. No, the bad philosophical hot takes can’t be far behind.
Is there such a thing as a philosophical hot take? Oh, yes. Yes, there is.
Vox science reporter Brian Resnick tells us that the meaning of Laurel Versus Yanny is that “your reality is an interpretation”: “Perceptual tricks like this…reveal that our perceptions are not the absolute truth; that the physical phenomena of the universe are indifferent to whether our feeble sensory organs can perceive them correctly. We’re just guessing.”
Resnick later tries to walk this back a little, admitting, “This isn’t to say you can never trust reality. Often, we’re correct and we agree on it! Otherwise, we wouldn’t have gotten this far.” Well, that’s reassuring.
But at Wired, Adam Rogers waxes poetic about “The Fundamental Nihilism of Yanny vs. Laurel,” because it “proves that we will all die alone.” Not so reassuring.
There is a world that exists—an uncountable number of differently flavored quarks bouncing up against each other. There is a world that we perceive—a hallucination generated by about a pound and a half of electrified meat encased by our skulls. Connecting the two, or conveying accurately our own personal hallucination to someone else, is the central problem of being human. Everyone’s brain makes a little world out of sensory input, and everyone’s world is just a little bit different.
To makes some sense out of this kind of brain-busting argument, we need to set aside Laurel and Yanny and talk about Manny and Ayn. By Manny, I mean Immanuel Kant, the 18th-Century philosopher who honed this kind of argument to its highest level. I don’t think Rogers knows he is parroting Kant, but it is an argument that has been around so long, and is so influential, that it long ago filtered down to the level of “pop philosophy” and became a commonplace conundrum favored by those who like to muddy their waters to make them look deep.
I won’t quote you anything from Kant, because he is famously unreadable, but having hacked my way through his 1781 treatise The Critique of Pure Reason, I can sum it up for you. Kant argued that we can never perceive things as they really are “in themselves.” All we can perceive is things as they appear to us, and those appearances are shaped by the nature of our own senses. Lacking a clear understanding of the physiological workings of the sensory organs or the modern science of perception, Kant simply described these distorting factors as a set of “categories” that condition how “things in themselves” appear to us.
Kant’s theory about the senses implies the kind of radical skepticism championed by the English philosopher David Hume, who, Kant wrote, “woke me from my dogmatic slumber.” But Kant tried to steer us away from overt subjectivism by claiming that if our perception of the world is just an illusion inside our heads, at least we all live in the same illusion because human nature is universal. That’s the kind of conclusion that Rogers seems to be groping toward.
Telling the person next to you what’s going on in your head, what your hallucination is like—I think that’s what we mean by “finding connection,” by making meaning with each other. Maybe it’s impossible, in the end. Maybe we’re all alone in our heads. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work on being alone together.
It’s a bit late to hope for that, because subsequent philosophers already went to work on Kant’s idea of reality as a shared hallucination. As I have described elsewhere, Kant’s system eventually filtered down to the contemporary notion that everyone has their “own truth,” based on the “intersectionality” of the various filters of race, class, and gender that shape their perception of the world. It is now regarded as tyrannical to assert a universal or objective truth against this inner truth.
This is why optical and auditory illusions like “Laurel Versus Yanny” are such a prime excuse for philosophical hot takes. They undermine the idea of a universally shared delusion and raise the prospect of radical skepticism, or at least a kind of epistemological tribalism. If we are all doomed to be Laurels versus Yannies, or Blues versus Golds, what hope do we have of no longer being divided as whites versus blacks or men versus women, or trans persons of color versus trans-exclusionary radical feminists?
If Manny and his unwitting contemporary followers got us into this dilemma, how are we going to get out? That’s where Ayn comes in, by which I mean Ayn Rand. To borrow the description she gave to one of the characters in her novels, she was the last of the advocates of reason—or the first of their return. One of her first tasks in preparing for the return of reason was to clear away this Kantian view of the senses.
Kant’s argument, she points out, amounts to the idea that “man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.”
By contrast, she argued that “all knowledge is processed knowledge—whether on the sensory, perceptual, or conceptual level. An ‘unprocessed’ knowledge would be a knowledge acquired without means of cognition…. [T]he satisfaction of every need of a living organism requires an act of processing by that organism, be it the need of air, of food, or of knowledge.”
In effect, Kant is taking a kind of miraculous mystical intuition as the standard of real knowledge, then downgrading our perception of the world because it doesn’t match up. In response, Ayn Rand asks us to accept it as normal and natural that we should gain knowledge of the world through a physical, cause-and-effect process. If we set out to understand that process, we will see how this makes our knowledge of the world more certain. Our perception of reality is valid precisely because it is the product of a process that proceeds automatically, by a chain of cause and effect, from the nature of the objects we perceive.
A proper understanding of optical and auditory illusions reinforces this outlook. Let’s take the case of the blue or gold dress. An excellent analysis of that case showed that the reason we see the dress ambiguously is not because our senses are limited or subjective but because they see so much and so accurately. The tones captured in the photograph corresponded either to the stripes of a blue and black dress seen in strong sunlight or to the stripes of a gold and white dress seen in deep shadow. Through a lifetime of experience, the visual system of our brain has programmed itself to adjust for these changes in ambient light. In real life, our brains would rely on other visual cues to make that adjustment correctly. It is only the fact that those cues are lacking in the famous photo that causes some people to make the correction one way and some to make it the other way.
It is no coincidence that most of these illusions are artificial images—either deliberately ambiguous drawings (duck or bunny?), or digital photographs, or audio clips. Thus, for example, whether you hear “Laurel” or “Yanny” can depend on the device you use to play the clip. If you were to hear it in real life, in its natural tones and perhaps also with visual cues like the movements of the speaker’s lips, you would have no doubt that you were hearing “laurel.” As in the case of the dress, the ambiguity is a byproduct of artificial reproduction, which can “spoof” a sensory apparatus adapted to perceive the real world.
The fundamental cause of all of these puzzles and paradoxes is precisely the fact that our eyes and ears and brains are optimized to perceive real things in reality—so you can see how perverse it is to use them as an argument for the exact opposite. But that’s what you get when you let yourself be influenced by the backward Kantian argument that we are blind because we have eyes, deaf because we have ears, and deluded because we have brains.
Such an idea would not be very harmful if it were just an excuse to confuse readers over photos of dresses or ambiguous audio clips. Unfortunately, Kant’s arguments attempting to undermine the evidence of the senses are the ultimate basis for a lot of mischief in the modern world, from “two and two make five if the Fuhrer wills it” to the dogged nostalgia for Communism that persists in defiance of all evidence. Manny has a lot to answer for.
Go ahead and have fun with the Laurel Versus Yanny conundrum, or whatever illusion is the next to make its rounds on the Internet. Personally, I’ll be working on a murder mystery in which the victim manages, with his last breath, to record the name of his killer. Laurel did it—but suspicion immediately falls on poor, unfortunate Yanny. The case is solved by our hero, an expert on auditory perception who just happens to be at the scene.
But cool it with the philosophical hot takes. When you think about Laurel and Yanny, forget about Manny and remember Ayn.