From Free Will to Moral Responsibility: Benefits of Learning, Introspection, and Meditation

Historically, our attributions of moral responsibility and practices of blaming and praising presuppose that we have free will. The question of moral responsibility is important because it’s the basis for our law and societal system and is crucial in how we interact with each other. In order to prove we have a moral responsibility, we first have to prove that we have free will. To prove that, I will offer a new approach that divides free will into two categories: first-order free will and higher-order free will. I will use results from psychology studies to reinforce my stance.

Let’s start by defining what free will is. Free will involves two things: I am the ultimate cause or source of my actions, and I have the ability to do otherwise than what I do. There are three different theories on free will. Hard determinism says that determinism — every event is entirely determined by previous events and the laws of nature — is true, and there is no free will. Libertarianism states that determinism is false, and we have free will. The third option is to be Compatibilist, which states that determinism and free will are compatible by changing how we define free. I don’t believe any of the three theories for the free will can solve the problem of moral responsibility.

Genetics and the environment that one has been brought up predetermine the actions of an individual. By genetics, I mean heredity, or inherited characteristics by our parents, and the rest of our family tree. The environment a child has been brought up in is correlated with the child’s learning processes, behavior, and personality traits. A negative environment is said to influence the physical and emotional development of the child. A study (Morrarty, 2014) shows how insecure attachment and behavioral inhibition significantly predicted adolescent anxiety symptoms.

We are given a set of default options when we face a situation because of this predetermination. This is what I call first-order free will, the ability to choose between a set of default options. To give an example, let’s look at Elliot. Elliot’s parents are both overweight, and during Elliot’s childhood, his classic lunch menu consisted of burgers, hot dogs, and burritos. Then throughout his life, Elliot will be drawn to eat one of these options for lunch. He is also more likely to be overweight. This results from both his genetic inclinations and his childhood learnings. He’s in the first-order free will default mode. Mendel Kalen gives a snow metaphor that thinks of the brain as a hill covered in snow, thoughts gliding down. As sleds go down the hill, a small number of main trails appear in the snow. Every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails. In time it becomes more and more difficult to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction.

The default set of options is part of a deterministic view. This determinism threatens moral responsibility. By continuing with the first-order free will, we are determined to keep our behavioral patterns. This makes it hard to quit addictions or leave the same thought patterns, which can cause depression (continuous thoughts of the past) and anxiety (continuous thoughts of the future). How this works in scientific terms is, when certain brain cells communicate frequently, the connection between them strengthens. Eventually, these behaviors become automatic, namely, habits. (Gremel, 2016) Reading, driving, riding a bike are examples of complicated behaviors being done automatically thanks to the pathways we have formed. However, it also causes negative habits, and over time, makes it easier to do something again, which sounds too similar to addictions or unwanted continuous behavioral and thought patterns, like in OCD. Therefore, we are less autonomous in making rational, reasoned decisions, and more prone to do what our implicit memory and formed neural networks tell us to do.

In order to address the difficult question of whether we have a moral responsibility, we need to focus on the notion of free will. The first-order free will isn’t the only way to live one’s life. We can take another approach to free will that ensures and enforces moral responsibility; I will call this higher-order free will. Higher-order free will states that we can manipulate the set of default options of the first-order free will. This higher-order free will requires learning new things, doing introspection, and practicing meditation. With these three practices, I argue that we can change our thought and behavioral patterns. Through learning new things, doing introspection, and practicing meditation, we can train our brain muscles, and change how specific areas in the brain works. Similar to working out and changing how our body looks, we can train the mind to change how our mind works.

In a study (Pagnoni, 2012), meditation’s impact on change in brain structures is studied. Subjects are asked to not engage in mental activity. However, when people tried to shut down their thoughts, researchers still witnessed activity coming from the ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC), an area associated with spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering. These are the thoughts that are brought up to awareness from implicit memory. This led to the notion of ‘default mode network’: brain activity running continuously in the background. This shows that we are not in charge of the thoughts that pop up in our heads as this happens when we actively try to shut down our thoughts. For example, when Elliot thinks of lunch, burgers come into mind easily because it’s the neural path his brain took many times. It’s an established connection between parts of the brain. For example, compared to people who don’t meditate, people who do had less activity in their vPMC. This means less mind wandering, more attention towards one’s own actions and more rational decision-making through contemplating. If we can stop our thoughts from constantly recurring through contemplation, we can have the mental clarity to seek other options. This can help to distance one’s self from continuous [negative] thoughts, like in addiction: people say it’s not in their control to stop, implying they don’t have free will over it. They have first-order free will at that point, and that’s why it’s hard to do otherwise, but not impossible. Pagnoni’s study offers biological evidence for changes in the brain process’ meditation might offer. Another study (Taren, 2017) shows the relation between Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), the executive control center, and areas involved in executive functions. The DLPFC is involved in planning, interaction with stimuli, and self-regulation. The study found that meditation results in increased activation in DLPFC and functional connectivity to dorsal and ventral cortexes, meaning we increase the control we have over our actions. This means reducing the time we spend contemplating about things we want to change about the past and future and having the time to focus on actually changing ourselves at the moment. While the first-order free will serves the default mode, the higher-order can make us more compassionate This happens as we spend less time contemplating about past and future, which are things about ourselves, and therefore, have more time to think about others. This sort of change in brain activity occurring with meditation can increase self-regulation and lessen the inclination towards the default responses.

We’re born with brains that are genetically hardwired with certain basic set of instructions. These instinctual behavioral patterns are encoded in nerve cell patterns, which means which neurons are connected and fire together in response to a specific event, experience, or thought. Nevertheless, our brains are also adaptable. Brain’s ability to change during one’s lifetime and to create new neural patterns is called neuroplasticity. The best way to do this is through learning. We can change neuron’s functions by learning, and we change which neurons communicate, and how fast they do it. In one study (Ungerleider, 2002), subjects perform a simple motor task, namely finger tapping, daily for four weeks. They become gradually more efficient and quicker at it, and brain scans show enlargement of the brain area involved in the task with newly recruited neurons. Additionally, we know that the brain can repurpose occipital brain regions that are meant for vision to other sensory information to improve other senses in blind people. (Renier, et al., 2010)

Moral responsibility needs the higher-order free will because when one starts to be aware of one’s predispositions and default mode network, then is able to make a more refined decision instead of jumping to the first option that is brought up to awareness. This first and easy option is the already established pathways (first-order free will). I also want to point out that it doesn’t mean that if someone doesn’t have higher-order free will, that one is free from moral responsibility. One makes a choice to stay in the default mode or push one’s self to get to higher-order free will, which is doing something harder. By making the choice of staying in first-order free will, one is still free in making this choice since it’s possible for everybody to reach higher-order free will, thus is still bound to moral responsibility. One can get out of the first-order free will anytime with either learning, introspection, or meditation. The process isn’t instant, but it’s gradual. When one of the three aforementioned methods happens, the other two are more likely to happen as well. We can increase our options on how to react to a situation by using the methods to manipulate our set of default options. Every day, we make a choice to either stay in the first-order free will or to start reaching the higher-order free will. Getting from first-order to higher-order free will is within each person’s capabilities.

A possible objection to my argument would be that three methods I presented that help us towards higher-order free will, are not free actions. A hard determinist could say that if everything we do is determined, then how could these three methods be self-caused. Maybe it was determined for me to meditate, learn, and introspect, and Elliot to not engage in these three methods. Then how can we make someone responsible for their moral actions, if everything in their life, including the three methods, are predetermined?

My response is that we break out of the cycle of determinism by changing our brain structure. I accept the fact that some things in life are predetermined, but we see people changing their lives all around us. Human nature is drawn to what is known and easy to us, and the reason is explained through neural pathways. By choosing something harder to do, you can work against that and change the brain structure. If you change your brain structure, you change your predispositions as they’re created from the structure and neural pathways in the brain. This idea is explained through brain plasticity. Some people may be more inclined to do the methods mentioned because of genetics or their environment. For those people, it’s easier to get to the higher-order free will. However, even if it’s harder for some people, it’s not impossible: anybody can achieve higher-order free will. With all the psychological and neuroscientific findings that I have presented and more that are not mentioned in this paper, I argue that we can change our predispositions over time. It’s important to note that it’s not an easy road; it requires a lot of practice and repetition. However, it being an actual possibility is enough to work towards the higher-order free will.

By dividing free will into two stages, first-order and higher-order free will, I have demonstrated that even though there are parts of us that are determined, it doesn’t have to stop us from having free will. We can get to the higher-order free will by three methods: learning, introspection, and meditation. Most of us live with the first-order free will, but with these methods that require no extra resource than one’s self, it is possible to achieve higher-order free will. The methods mentioned above help us reflect on our choices, be more conscious of our thoughts and actions. Therefore, by having higher-order free will, we can contrast the default mode network and our predetermination, thus becoming the cause or source of our actions. By getting to higher-order free will, we can be sure that we have a moral responsibility.


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