Unless you’ve been backpacking in the Himalayas for the last few days, you have been confronted with the latest internet meme: Laurel or Yanny?
First, I’ll let my avatar handle this:
All kidding aside, the lesson is that there are lower frequencies in the audio clip that sound like “Laurel” and higher frequencies that sound like “Yanny” and depending on your auditory ability, you end up hearing one or the other.
But what relevance does this have to God?
In his book Perceiving God, William Alston observes:
“We are familiar with many areas in which only a small percentage of the population has developed the perceptual sensitivity to certain features of the world, – for example, the distinctive qualities of wines and the inner voices of a complex orchestral performance.”
Or, one might add, the higher frequencies of “Yanny”.
So imagine that you hear “Laurel”. You might be tempted to dismiss those who insist that they hear “Yanny” as obviously wrong. But given the high variation in perceptual sensitivity/capacity, you should grant the possibility that they are hearing frequencies you cannot hear.
Alston’s point is that there is a legitimate analogy between perception in these other areas and a perceptual grasp of God. We can summarize his argument succinctly as follows:
(1) Many people report experiences of a spiritual reality.
(2) The best explanation of these varied reports is that there is a spiritual reality which is their source of origin.
Just as the existence of people who cannot hear “Yanny” is not a reason to think they do not hear Yanny, so the existence of people who do not grasp that spiritual reality is not a reason to think they do not experience that spiritual reality.
Finally, let me anticipate a couple rebuttals with two additional points.
First, note that some perceptual sensitivities (e.g. soundwave frequencies) are more open to third-party validation than others (e.g. the distinctive qualities of wine). So the fact that a spiritual perception is more like the latter than the former is not an argument against its existence.
Second, one need not define precisely what a spiritual perception is or how it functions to accept its deliverances. In this case, it would be no different than other cognitive senses like vision, proprioception or an intuitive sense of danger. So we are not exercising a double standard by granting prima facie authority to these deliverances. Indeed, the contrary is true: it is the skeptic who challenges the very existence of these cognitive faculties based on our inability to define their nature and function precisely who exercises a double standard.