As someone who's partially color blind, regularly mishears things, and has read a lot about philosophical skepticism, the thing I find most amusing about the Laurel/Yanny debacle (and the 2015 iteration: the Dress) is that people are so certain that the world has to be the way it appears to them.
I ask people to repeat things a lot. I regularly mishear things my students say (although on my curmudgeonly days I think this is just because those whipper-snappers need to speak up). I’m sometimes quiet in social gatherings at loud places because I hardly understand what anyone is trying to yell over the din. Sometimes it’s easier to pretend I heard someone, smile, nod, and hope that I’ll catch enough of what they say later to piece it together, like some sort of auditory detective.
I don’t see in black and white or anything, but I sometimes have trouble distinguishing colors, especially if they’re pale or washed out. I sometimes dread board games because the designers seem incapable of making the colors of pieces and cards bold enough for me to tell apart. Maybe it’s my inner goth or my total lack of fashion sense, but I like wearing blacks and greys to avoid this whole inscrutable idea of “clashing.”
So I’ve never had much confidence in my auditory or visual capacities. There’s also all the stuff I’ve read over the years on philosophical skepticism.
In the Know?: Philosophical Skepticism
For those not in the know (if, indeed, any of us are in the know), one type of philosophical skepticism is a view that we have less knowledge than we think (or even no knowledge at all) in particular domains. Religious skepticism, for instance, is the view that we lack knowledge within a religious domain (say on the existence of God, the afterlife, etc.). Skepticism about induction is the view that induction (roughly, making inferences from past experience to future occurrences) is not a legitimate source of knowledge.
Skepticism about the senses is (at least in modern times) related to a type of skepticism called external-world skepticism, or the idea that we lack knowledge of the external world. Why on Earth would anyone believe that?
If you don't have time to watch The Matrix, try this. How do you know the device upon which you’re reading this is really in front of you? Because you see it? Because of your senses? But don’t things like the Dress and the Laurel/Yanny debacle show us that our senses aren’t actually all that reliable?
You might say that sure, the senses go wrong sometimes, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong all the time. But how do you know which situation you’re in at any particular moment? After all, a lot of people have switched from Team Laurel to Team Yanny in a matter of minutes (another amusing/worrying thing to me is that people feel the need to “pick teams” about this). So how can you be so sure about which one is right?
There have already been a lot of scientific explanations for how people see and hear different things with the Dress and Laurel/Yanny. You might think that settles things, but if you think about it, if any of those explanations are right, that just makes the problem worse by giving us even more reasons to doubt whether our senses give us a true picture of reality.
The Truth of the Matter?
You might also give up on the very idea that there is an objective reality or that there’s any truth about the Laurel/Yanny matter. Lots of college students and current US Presidents seem to take a view like this, but if you think about it, that’s a pretty crazy idea, too. After all, how do you know that there’s no truth about the matter? How could you ever know that? Does the fact that some people disagree mean that anything goes? That would be good news for the Flat Earth Society! In order to figure out if there's a reality, you also need to get clear about what kind of reality we’re talking about (sound wave frequencies, auditory processing in the brain, etc.), but it’s hard to even do that without some sort of basic idea that there’s a truth of the matter whether we know it or not.
So the Laurel/Yanny debacle seems to leave us with some reasons to be skeptical about our senses.
The internet may on its way to tearing itself apart, but is all this actually anything to worry about? Modern forms of philosophical skepticism, and especially in contemporary analytic epistemology, take this sort of thing as a troubling challenge. After all, if we pride ourselves on being the type of creatures who know some stuff, the argument that we don’t know as much as we think ought to be a big blow to our self esteem, not to mention our existential sense of who we are as knowers.
Old School Skepticism
But older forms of skepticism, particularly those in the Hellenistic and classical Indian traditions, take this sort of issue as liberating rather than challenging. For these types of skeptics, skepticism isn’t a challenge to be overcome but a means toward peace of mind. It’s a therapy rather than a view.
Think about how much anxiety people have about the Laurel/Yanny debacle: you’ve got to defend yourself from members of the other team, you have to secretly worry that you might be wrong or that there’s something wrong with you if you’re not sure. What if there were techniques for managing this sort of anxiety?
Try this: There are smart, honest people on both teams. If they can’t get it right, how can you? Maybe it’s just best to suspend judgment on the matter. Or try this one: Maybe the first time you heard it as “Laurel” and then later as “Yanny” (or vice versa). But then aren’t you just contradicting yourself? Maybe it’s best to stop trying to support any particular contention on the matter.
I can’t guarantee these exercises will work. They might have to become everyday therapies if they’re going to work at all. But if they did or could work, wouldn’t you have a lot less anxiety about the whole Laurel/Yanny debacle?
(If you’re looking for more material, look into the ancient Greek/Roman skeptic Sextus Empiricus, or a trio of classical Indian philosophers I’ve written a lot about: Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa. I should probably also engage in some shameless self-promotion and mention my forthcoming book, Three Pillars of Skepticism in Classical India: Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa).
Laurel and Yanny Walk Into a Bar...
For me the best thing about being a skeptic (or at least skeptic-adjacent: it’s hard to be a skeptic all the time!) is that I can look on with amusement as the internet convulses over the Laurel/Yanny debacle. I might hear it one way or the other, and you might disagree. But that’s okay. And once you realize that, the whole thing becomes rather funny.
(Bonus: If all this isn't entertaining enough for you, Chuck Tingle already has a Laurel/Yanny story available.)