Laurel, Yanny and 2,000 years of philosophy

Two minds: A young lady or an old woman? Illusions affect the eyes as well as the ears.

Is there such a thing as reality? The internet erupted in an ear-splitting debate this week — all thanks to a mysterious recording. Science has since cracked the case, but deeper riddles remain.

It has become one of the defining questions of our age. Are you a “laurel” or a “yanny”? Not sure? Click here to find out (even if you have heard it before, things may have changed…).

This week, the recording at the start of that clip went viral, sparking a fierce debate which, beneath the surface, explores fundamental questions about how we experience the universe.

It all starts with “laurel” and “yanny”. Which one did you hear? Chances are you have friends who heard the opposite. But how can one sound can be interpreted in two different ways?

Science has the answer. The recording is of the word “laurel”, but it contains both high and low frequencies. It is these higher frequencies (and the patchy sound quality) which make some people hear “yanny” — it depends on which frequency your brain focuses on.

But instead of settling the issue, this explanation only leads to harder questions.

If our senses can deceive us, how can we rely on them? For that matter, can we be sure that what we experience is real? And does this mean that everyone has their own different version of “reality” whirring inside their brains? But this would mean that… there is no such thing as “reality” at all?

These questions have vexed philosophers for millennia.

Philosophical scepticism is the school of thought that true knowledge is impossible to attain. Among the first sceptics was an ancient Greek philosopher called Pyrrho. Born in 360 BC, he believed that our senses reveal nothing about the true nature of the world.

Think about colour. To one person, a basket of mixed apples will appear red and green. To someone with colour blindness, the same apples would all look a brownish-green. To a hungry bat they will be shades of black and white. Colour exists in the mind of the observer — not in the apples themselves.

Other philosophers like René Descartes have argued that “reality” could actually be all a vivid dream, stating we cannot rely on senses to disprove this claim. This idea had a modern re-imagining in the film The Matrix.

Is there such a thing as reality?

Nonsense

Most probably, some argue. There is no proof otherwise, and in philosophy it is usually the simplest explanation that is correct. Furthermore, each person can be pretty sure they exist, as Descartes himself said: “I think, therefore I am.” Plus there must be a “real” physical world for our senses to interact with. Case closed.

Do not be so sure, others respond. This quirky recording reminds us that all experience is subjective. And if that is the case, then no solid sense of reality can be said to exist. What’s more, every possible sensation is necessarily filtered and staged by our imperfect minds. All is illusion.

You Decide

  1. Can we rely on our senses?
  2. Is all experience subjective?

Activities

  1. Imagine the universe was actually one gigantic computer simulation which had the power to project every single piece of sensory information you encounter — from the things you see and hear, to everything you feel and taste. Is it possible to prove that this is not the case right now?
  2. Research these three key philosophical terms: scepticism, solipsism and idealism. From your research, write a definition for each term using no more than 10 words for each.

Some People Say...

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”

Albert Einstein

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
According to a poll taken by The Verge, 40% of listeners hear “yanny”; 43% hear “laurel”; while 17% hear both words. The clip was reportedly recorded by a professional opera singer in 2007 and was intended to represent the word “laurel”. It went viral on Monday after a user posted the clip to the website Reddit, and it was then posted on Twitter by social media influencer Cloe Feldman.
What do we not know?
Precisely what is going on inside people’s heads besides our own. Solipsism is the philosophical idea that one’s own mind is all that can be known to exist. Therefore, knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is uncertain. Some thinkers take this idea to its extreme conclusion, claiming that other minds and the external world do not exist — this is also known as philosophical idealism.

Word Watch

Recording
The voice recording originated from the language website Vocabulary.com.
Focuses
Everybody’s brain activity is slightly different. In this case it could depend on age, a listener’s past experiences or what they are expecting to hear. The type of speakers or headphones used will also make a difference.
Believed
He produced no known written records, however his thoughts were recorded and passed down by followers and other writers.
Colour blindness
The condition can manifest in several different ways, however red–green colour blindness is the most common form.
Dream
Known as the dream argument, the hypothesis was also explored by Plato and Aristotle.
The Matrix
Rather than a dream, the film explores a scenario in which the world as humanity knows it is actually a massive computer simulation maintained by an advanced robot civilisation.
Simplest explanation
The principle of Occam’s razor states that when presented with several hypothetical solutions to a problem, one should select the option which makes the fewest assumptions.