December 8, 2016

Isaac Watts & How to Think – Part 2

by Eric Davis

One of the greatest responsibilities we have as humans is to learn how to correctly use our minds. In yesterday’s post, we began looking at common problems we run into when exercising reason and logic from Isaac Watts’ book on Logic. We are creatures made with logic and reasoning capabilities. We are made by a logical and rational Creator. Thus, we are obligated to exercise our minds with correct reasoning in all things. But this does not always come naturally.

We began looking at what Watts calls, “prejudices of thought,” which are common errors we make in our reasoning skills. Here are the final three prejudices, which are both the most common and serious:

3. The prejudice of presentation.

Often we are swayed to believe error or fail to believe a truth due to the manner in which the truth or error is presented. Watts gives several examples.

We might be persuaded by an individual’s confident and self-assured presentation of an argument. An individual of great piety, or the appearance thereof, might easily convince others of a proposition. Or, we could be swayed to embrace an argument by the soft and gentle manner in which it is presented. Watts writes, “[E]ven hardy and rugged souls are sometimes led away captives to error by the soft airs of address, and the sweet and engaging methods of persuasion and kindness” (220). Finally, there is the manner of “jest,” or joke. This happens when an argument is made by “a turn of wit” or “casting sneer upon the objector.”

Some of these manners are important to presentation. However, to base the validity of a proposition on the grounds of these methods is unwarranted and an incorrect use of reason. Watts concludes,

“[I]f we build our faith merely upon these foundations, without regard to the evidence of the truth and the strength of the argument, our belief is but the effect of prejudice; for [none of these] methods of address carry any certain evidence with them that truth lies on that side” (221).

4. The prejudice arising from ourselves.

There are numerous errors of reasoning which arise from ourselves.

51ni5pecval-_sx319_bo1204203200_First, we might maintain errors from childhood into adulthood. We all have various comforts which we associate with our childhood. It could be a person, place, tradition, religious leader or practice. For whatever reason, the thought brings us comfort. However, error can cling to those comforts like a flea to a dog. Consequently, we may be slower to believe truth or disbelieve error which clashes with that comfort or association. The same could be said vice versa with a discomforting association. Due to some unpleasant memory of the past, we might be easily influenced to believe error, or disbelieve truth, which we see as associated with that memory.

Second, things like dreams and the imagination can be a gateway to error. Watts writes,

“Our imagination is nothing else but the various appearances of our sensible ideas in the brain, where the soul frequently works in uniting, disjoining, multiplying, magnifying, diminishing, and altering the several shapes, colours, sounds, motions, words, and things, that have been communicated to us by the outward organs of the sense. It is no wonder, therefore, if fancy leads us into many mistakes” (193).

Watts argues for special caution here:

“A thousand pretended prophecies and inspirations, and all the freaks of enthusiasm, have been derived from this spring. Dreams are nothing else but the deceptions of fancy; a delirium is but a short wildness of the imagination; and  settled irregularity of fancy is a distraction and madness” (193-4).

To guard against these errors of reason, Watts suggest that we are cautious about using the imagination as a means of inquiry after truth.

A third error of reason arising from ourselves is our various “passions or affections of the mind” (194). In other words, certain inclinations can steer us astray in reasoning. Speaking of these inclinations, Watts comments:

“They disguise every object they converse with, and put their own colours upon it, and thus lead the judgment astray from truth. It is love that makes the mother things her own child the fairest, and will sometimes persuade us that a blemish is a beauty” (194).

So, for example, when we are ruled by a desire for people’s approval, our reasoning could be swayed to serve that idol.

Fourth, we can err in thinking due to the fondness of self. In other words, our fallen inclination to favor and worship ourselves can cause us to err in reasoning. Watts observes: “We are generally ready to fancy everything of our own has something peculiarly valuable in it, when indeed there is no other reason, but because it is our own” (196). So, we will favor a doctrine or argument if it in some way flatters us at that moment of life. Or, on the contrary, we will reject a doctrine if we suppose that it somehow lowers us. The danger here is that, whether regenerate or unregenerate, our indwelling flesh always seeks opportunities for self-exaltation. Thus, the flesh will look to hijack our critical thinking in order to praise and applaud self, if not subtly and silently.

5. The prejudice of experience and emotion.

Though Watts mentions this under the “prejudice arising from ourselves,” the prominence of it today deserves its own mention here.

Likely, this is the most common logical fallacy, including among Christians. Experiences can have a powerful sway on what we believe or disbelieve. Our emotions and experiences are often gateways for error.

Often without pause, we will believe or disbelieve a proposition on the grounds that we saw or felt or dreamed or tasted or heard. We will formulate doctrines on the grounds of experience. By doing so, who do we say is the highest judge of knowledge and truth? Our senses and our experiences, or, more accurately, ourselves. When we formulate a doctrine from experience, we make ourselves gods: we, by our senses, are the highest determiners of what is.

Similarly, and equally erroneous, is the sway of sentiment and emotion. These usually persuasively accompany experience. The sequence is the same: I am sloppy in my thinking, I experience something, I am moved emotionally by it, a sentiment becomes firmly attached to the experience, and I consequently will form a strong conviction which supports my moving experience.

But, a particular emotion or feeling is never to be the basis for receptivity or rejection of a proposition. “That makes me feel bad” can no more serve as logical grounds to reject a proposition any more than, “I don’t like that person,” can determine whether or not a person is human. The same is true for, “that makes me feel good,” and our reception of a proposition. Regardless of what emotion a truth or doctrine may solicit in us, we have the responsibility to evaluate them logically. Similarly, we are obligated to receive and apply truth diligently, whether or not we perceive to be emotionally moved by it.

This is one of the great plagues of our day. We believe it because our glands were aroused. We disbelieve because our emotions were crushed. It is the height of infantile thinking to ground a belief in experience, senses, and emotion.

Today, experience and sentiment are the one-two punch of heresy. Our generation has reached a new low: we have degenerated to the point where experience and sentiment have become the tests of canonicity. Because my eyes saw and feelings stirred, it’s canonical; it’s absolute.

To guard against this, we must be vigilant to restrain ourselves from sentimental sway in reasoning. Various types of sway exist. First, the “family” sway. Often error will be embraced because a loved family member embraces it. We suppose that we would hurt someone (a parent or grandparent) if we believed something contrary. We would not want to say that they were wrong. Ironically, we fail to love them by embracing error on these grounds. Similarly is the “significant person” sway. This occurs when someone of significant influence in our lives, perhaps a youth pastor or mentor, believed and taught us error. However, we are hesitant to go contrary because of that influential sentiment. In doing so, we err in reasoning.

We must be equally vigilant about the sway of experience. On many occasions, it has been said, “I know that this particular supernatural experience is real and to be sought out by Christians because it happened to me and others I know, and it was an amazing feeling. I felt so close to God.” Notice that the ground of knowledge is experience, senses, and emotion. Those are the end all to determine a truth; what is of God. Further, this reasoning makes an “ought” out of an experience: “since this moving thing happened and I was thinking about God in the moment, even asking God, therefore, not only is it from God, but others must make it a life practice.”

Similarly, a pastor once argued, “If I look out my window and see a purple giraffe, you cannot tell me that purple giraffes don’t exist.” Of all people who should not commit this reasoning fallacy, it is those who labor in the inspired word.


What’s wrong with the two examples? They commit the error of placing experience and senses at the top of the epistemological hierarchy. If that highest source of knowledge; if objective revelation; if Scripture teaches that purple giraffes do not exist, then I must tell you that they do not exist since Scripture is epistemologically superior to experience. Sentiment and experience are to be subject to Scripture in matters of belief because a perfect, holy, and objective God is the source of Scripture and imperfect, sinful, and subjective man is the source of sentiment and experience.

Sense, experience, and emotion are no grounds for belief in matters of things of God. And when we Christians reason in this manner, we functionally abandon the God in whose image we are made and by whose Spirit we are indwelt. We functionally say that knowledge whose origin is God (Scripture), is inferior to that knowledge whose origin is man (experience/emotion). For that, we must let God be God by subjecting all things in life to his word. Bottom line: to epistemologically elevate experience and emotion above Scripture is to commit the grossest idolatry; the worship of self.


We could make three conclusions regarding the exercise of correct reason. First, we are to respect our logical God by diligently observing the principles of logic and rationality in our thinking. Second, much of this comes down to biblical humility. We not only humble ourselves by, for example, exercising restraint in judgment and effort in discernment, but submitting our minds to God’s laws and words, over our experiences, opinions, and sentiments. It’s a matter of humility. Third, this is an issue of worshiping the Lord our God with all our minds. Worship is a rational, logical act. We are to present ourselves—which includes our minds—as acceptable offerings to God.

This side of heaven, we cannot claim personal infallibility. But, once we put faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, a great mind-renewing begins which will culminate in glory. Until then, it is both an act of love to God and our neighbor to labor for responsible thinking.

Watts concludes appropriately:

“Since we find such a swarm of prejudices attending us both within and without…it is not at all unbecoming…to direct every person in search after truth to make his daily addresses to Heaven, and implore the God of Truth to lead him into all truth and to ask wisdom of him who giveth liberally to them that ask it” (222).

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • beritwins

    Thanks Eric for a fantastic and Oh so relevant set of articles on this subject. Points 4&5,”The prejudice arising from ourselves + that of experience and emotion” are particularly relevant.