Andrew Fiala

Do you hear laurel or yanny? The question is no different than ‘True or fake-news?’

The New York Times

The hubbub about the laurel-yanny audio clip is symbolic of the “post-truth” era. Some hear “laurel.” Others hear “yanny.” An even stranger example is the “green needle” or “brainstorm” meme. You hear one word or another depending upon what you are thinking.

This can be explained as an example of perceptual priming. We experience what we are “primed” to experience. If you expect to hear either “green needle” or “brainstorm,” that’s what you hear.

Reality appears to depend upon what we want to believe. And the world may in fact appear different to different people. Some see “collusion.” Others see a “witch hunt.” You claim a story is true. Others call it fake-news.

Priming is powerful. Salesmen, magicians, and politicians manipulate experience and build upon our expectations. The most obvious technique is to keep repeating something until it starts to ring true. As Joseph Goebbels suggested, “if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”

Less sinister examples occur in coaching and education. Positive “self-talk” helps improve athletic performance. The belief that we can learn – the so-called “growth mindset” –helps us learn better. In general, positive attitude creates positive experience. As William James once said, “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

The danger here is that we lose track of reality – and morality. Some skeptics claim that reality and morality are constructed by power, perspective, and propaganda.

But morality is usually thought to depend upon a common moral perception of the world. Abused animals evoke pity. Dead human bodies cause disgust. And rape prompts outrage. Moral emotions are supposed to disclose moral truth.

But moral perceptions vary. Bullfighters revel in animal cruelty. Some people feel pride at seeing the dead body of a hated enemy. And perverts get aroused by rape.

What some people experience as repugnant or shameful, others experience as noble and inspiring. I hear “yanny.” You hear “laurel.” I am disgusted by your politics. You are repulsed by mine.

Thus we risk a kind of relativism that denies objective standards of judgment. But relativism is a skeptical dead-end. It leaves us stuck, unable to move forward in resolving moral conflicts. For the relativist, the story ends with fundamentally different experiences of the world.

But pure difference is not the end of the story. We can adjust the laurel-yanny audio clip to make it possible to hear things differently. Understanding how our brains work helps us understand our differing perceptions.

The same thing occurs with regard to morality. We have to move beyond the obvious fact that we have divergent moral perceptions toward deeper understanding of moral judgment.

It is important to understand, for example, that moral perception is “primed” by culture, history, and religion. Morality is not hard-wired. It is fostered and improved by moral education.

Divergent experience does not mean that there are no universal values. Rather, it means that we have to dig more deeply to find bedrock beliefs. It also means that we have to work more diligently to create and sustain a common moral world.

The good news is that despite our differences, we share much in common. The common background of the laurel-yanny phenomenon is hearing itself. We all agree that sound is made of waves vibrating at different frequencies. This provides a starting place for inquiry. Cognitive scientists then explain how different interpretations arise.

A similar story exists in moral and political life. Some basic truths underlie our disagreements. Fake-news only makes sense against a background of genuine news. The claim that something is an absurd “witch hunt” only makes sense when we no longer believe in witches.

Our fascination with the laurel-yanny problem is a hopeful sign. We are learning how difficult it is to achieve consensus. The common ground here is the fact of our disagreement. People have always disagreed. But we have not always agreed to disagree. Our perceptions differ. But we share a common desire to be free to differ.

The key value here is liberty. I cannot force you to hear “yanny” when you really hear “laurel.” So let’s agree that we each have a right to experience the world in our own way.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala