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Yanny/laurel: Any spiritual relevance?

NASHVILLE (BP) — Does the debate over whether an internet audio clip is saying “yanny” or “laurel” have any spiritual relevance for Christians? Professors at two Southern Baptist institutions think it might.

Despite the audio clip’s peculiar ambiguity, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary philosophy professor Mark Coppenger said it highlights the fact God made the world “reliably accessible” to our senses — despite claims to the contrary by a millennia-long string of philosophers including the Greek thinker Pyrrho and Enlightenment scholar David Hume. Union University physicist Bill Nettles said the online debate shows “true knowledge” is accessible through scientific investigation, but it takes “a lot of hard work.”

Beginning May 15, social media users were divided over whether the audio clip posted by a Georgia high school student says “laurel” in a low computer-generated voice or “yanny” in a high computer-generated voice. Major news outlets, including The New York Times and NPR, picked up on the debate, comparing it to a picture of a dress circulated in 2015 that appeared white and gold to some viewers but blue and black to others.

Coppenger, professor of Christian philosophy and ethics at Southern, told Baptist Press such debates are a valuable reminder that radical differences in humans’ perceptions of reality are “the exception” rather than “the rule.”

“Just because there’s twilight doesn’t mean we don’t understand what day and night are,” Coppenger said. “There can be fuzzy things here and there in judgment. But the exception doesn’t shoot down the general truth.”

Drawing on the Enlightenment philosophers Thomas Reid and Rene Descartes, Coppenger said the general truth to bear in mind is that “a benevolent God has created a world that is reliably accessible to our senses and to our common sense.”

While Coppenger admits to being “kind of puzzled” by the yanny/laurel audio clip, he said internet users’ experience with the clip should not be compared to humans’ normal experience of perceiving the world.

“God is sovereign, and God is a wise creator and a good creator, and He doesn’t deal in systematic deception,” Coppenger said.

Nettles, University Professor of Physics at Union, said the yanny/laurel discussion demonstrates that while it’s possible “to find true knowledge,” it “takes a lot of trust and a lot of hard work.” Nettles has analyzed the frequency of the recording and concluded, “To make a judicious choice, I would need to have the original sound file and observe unbiased experts as they process the file in real time.”

The ongoing social media debate shows “that people can be strongly biased by suggestion, or first impressions,” Nettles told BP in written comments. “In this case, the suggestion is that people are actually hearing different things. There is too much publicity now about what you should hear (why are there only 2 choices?) to back up and do an unbiased test. When you look at the background (a student was researching the word ‘laurel’ and heard ‘yanny’ when she clicked an audio pronunciation) you realize there is a tremendous amount of expectation bias.”

Nettles added, “I don’t trust the internet or any of the reports by news agencies about this. I believe we are capable of determining, by careful examination, whether this is a prank, and if it’s not, what the true word is.”

Explanations by internet news sources have varied. The New York Times claimed the source of the audio clip is the vocabulary.com entry for the word “laurel.”

The different audio perceptions, scientists told The Times, may stem from the presence of “acoustic patters … midway between those for the two words” or from listeners’ focus on different audio frequencies.

University of California, Davis neurobiology, physiology and behavior professor Lee Miller told NPR, “We don’t really experience the world as it is, but we experience our brain’s best guess. And the cues that we get from the world are often more ambiguous than we realize.”

Be that as it may, Coppenger concluded, “Because of God’s graciousness and design … we have shared experiences so we can have a commonality” in the way we generally perceive the world.