Please jump to the 'Edit' portion of the question, because the below portion MAY seem confusing or irrelevant.

Assuming that the control over things we have is illusory, as beautifully explained by the answer here by @stoicfury, what purpose does our consciousness serve?

The control we feel is the degree to which our predicted outcome is expected to match the inevitable outcome.

If we assume that the purpose of consciousness is to minimize the difference between the predicted outcome & inevitable outcome (as I can comprehend from the above statement in the same answer), what purpose does that serve, i.e., what gain does an experiencing entity (like us) gain from that prediction/experience, when the flow is already deterministic?

Or this can be reduced to, what is the necessity of consciousness, and what role does that play assuming no free-will?


Quoting this from Wikipedia,

According to epiphenomenalism, mental states like Pierre's pleasurable experience—or, at any rate, their distinctive qualia—are epiphenomena; they are side-effects or by-products of physical processes in the body.

If Pierre takes a second bite, it is not caused by his pleasure from the first; If Pierre says, "That was good, so I will take another bite", his speech act is not caused by the preceding pleasure. The conscious experiences that accompany brain processes are causally impotent.

If the next conscious experience is independent of the past conscious experiences, what real help is consciousness doing?

Is it like a report console which is just to present what's before us in a subjective way, which is consequently of no use?

I just realized that this question is a formulation of the Hard problem of consciousness.

And there are responses to it, which I feel is difficult to relate to this question.

There seems to be no indication of any purpose of qualia, as my question is.

  • Sounds like you've restricted the conditions to the point where consciousness has no real purpose, or maybe even not any real existence. However, the universe is in no way deterministic. Dec 13, 2017 at 14:54
  • @DanielGoldman Yes, I agree that my question is based on the premise that the universe is deterministic, but there is no way to prove whether the universe is deterministic or probabilistic (like how Quantum Mechanics framework is based on Quantum Indeterminacy, which in-turn is not unanimously proved). Hence your statement that the universe is in no way deterministic cannot be backed up fool-proof.
    – Gokul NC
    Dec 13, 2017 at 15:02
  • It is not consistent with our current theories on physics, at the very least. So I guess one could reject current scientific theory and evidence. Dec 13, 2017 at 15:25
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    Determinism is perfectly consistent with current theories.
    – H Walters
    Dec 13, 2017 at 16:01
  • 2
    The question about the purpose of consciousness is a good one but the rest of the OP seems to just confuse the issues.
    – user20253
    Dec 14, 2017 at 12:49

6 Answers 6


Let's start here:

If we assume that the purpose of consciousness is to minimize the difference between the predicted outcome & inevitable outcome (as I can comprehend from the above statement in the same answer), what purpose does that serve, i.e., what gain does an experiencing entity (like us) gain from that prediction/experience, when the flow is already deterministic?

I think you're confusing determinism with fatalism. Suppose I'm in a room with an oracle (call him Nostradamus), and we play a simple game. I pick a number from 1 to 10. But before I do, Nostradamus predicts what I will pick. Now since it helps define the difference, suppose Nostradamus actually tells me what his prediction is; in particular, suppose he says I pick 3.

If fatalism is true, then I basically must pick 3; the oracle predicted it, after all, so it cannot be avoided. But if determinism is true, I can easily pick 4.

This is actually easy to do. I just pick 3 if Nostradamus says I will pick any number but 3. But I pick 4 if he says I will pick 3. All we need for me to have this strange capability is determinism; I don't need free will, and indeterminism actually hampers this ability; the trick to spiting Nostradamus's prediction is to react to what his prediction is. I don't even need to be conscious; we could program Alexa to fill my role if you like.

Fatalism makes the predictions pointless, but determinism doesn't. If you can avoid a bad outcome by predicting it would happen, then reacting to the prediction, you can gain a survival advantage. Having this ability requires neither free will, nor indeterminism, nor even consciousness; simply the ability to model and react to the model. Robots can duck if rocks are thrown at them. Self driving cars can apply breaks if they predict otherwise that they will collide with an object. Nothing mysterious is required for "evitability".

So if consciousness were mechanistic, and it in part played a role of avoiding bad outcomes by predicting them and then avoiding them, it could be a survival advantage; and such would not require anything non-deterministic. Simply modeling and reacting to the model suffices.

But let's suppose consciousness is not mechanistic; instead, let's presume it's an epiphenomenon; in particular:

The conscious experiences that accompany brain processes are causally impotent.

Under this premise, let's consider this question:

Again, if the next conscious experience is independent of the past conscious experiences, what real help is consciousness doing?

Then the answer is simple. It's of no help; since consciousness is causally impotent, it plays no role in our survival.

Counterintuitively, however, this only means that consciousness does not help. It does not necessarily mean that having consciousness does not help. In particular, it could very well be the case that there are particular sorts of mechanisms that, if we had them, would grant us a big survival advantage. It could also be that those mechanisms just so happened to be such that, were they in play, they would somehow result in an epiphenomenal consciousness. Were this the case, having consciousness by means of having those mechanisms would mean we have those mechanisms. In other words, having consciousness could still correlate to having a survival advantage (because a mechanism granting us such could be a "confounding variable"), even if it does not cause it.

Update: The comments seem to confirm the conflation of determinism with fatalism, so lets dig in here. As noted in the comments, when considering Nostradamus we are adding an assumption that the oracle is possible.

Determinism versus Fatalism

Let's get to basic definitions. Determinism can be defined as the premise that every effect is the result of antecedent causes. Let's call the presumption of determinism (P1).

Now let's swap Nostradamus out for "some guy", call him Ralph. I now want to build a prediction-spiter; let's say it's the non-conscious "Alexa" device. I want to program Alexa in such a way that if Ralph says 3, Alexa says 4. If Ralphs says 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10, Alexa says 3. Now this is what I want to do, but I can't necessarily do that by assuming determinism. So I need another premise. Let's presume it's possible to program Alexa this way. Call that (P2).

Now let's explore what happens. If we take them as Ralph-says-x/Alexa-says-y tuples, the possibilities form the exhaustive set:

 S={(1,3), (2,3), (3,4), (4,3), (5,3), (6,3), (7,3), (8,3), (9,3), (10,3)}

No member of this set is such that x=y; in other words, it's not possible for Ralph to say what Alexa will say. But what's more telling here is that this is a perfectly reasonable description of an entirely deterministic universe. Every possible scenario in S follows determinism, by definition; each effect is an inevitable result of an antecedent cause. All that's happening here is that we're claiming that what Ralph says is the antecedent cause, and what Alexa says is the effect.

Now, swap Ralph back out with Nostradamus. Nothing here should change about the mechanics of the universe; the only thing that changes here is the presumption that Nostradamus can fill Ralph's role, and be an oracle. But that's not necessarily possible, so we need another premise. Let's suppose it's possible in this scenario for Nostradamus to predict what Alexa will say, and for Alexa to be unable to do anything else. Call this premise (P3).

We now have a contradiction. Suppose Nostradamus makes a prediction (P3 presumes this is possible), and call it x1. (P3) implies Alexa must say y1, such that x1=y1. That conflicts with (P2), because (P2) does not have an (x,y) where x=y in its set of possibilities.

But a contradiction doesn't tell you that a particular premise is wrong; it only tells you something is. So let's break this down:

  • {(P1),(P2),(P3)} leads to a contradiction.
  • {(P1),(P3)} would work just fine, though; if we don't assume that building Alexa like this is possible, then any Alexa we build must have an inevitable and predictable outcome (by P3, which presumes that just this is possible). However, this is insufficient to argue that (P1) leads to fatalism; we can only say that {(P1),(P3)} does.
  • {(P1),(P2)} also works fine. We already explored this. Everything about the Ralph scenario is consistent with determinism. But in regard to the suggestion that (P1) per se leads to fatalism, this is telling.

In particular, the fact that {(P1),(P2)} is a valid consideration means that determinism per se does not lead to fatalism. The argument that Nostradamus shows (P1) leads to fatalism is flawed for this reason; in particular, the flaw is that it imports fatalism itself into the premises, thus begging the question.

Note something crucial here, however. The impossibility of an oracle under determinism requires two things: (1) A spite-machine, (2) an oracle's prediction specifically being fed as an input. Were Nostradamus not to "interfere", we could always import him into a deterministic universe. Alexa's not breaking anything; Alexa's not conscious, doesn't have free will, and isn't indeterministic. If Nostradamus were an all knowledgeable calculator, it would be trivial to work out what Alexa would do. It's only if the result of that were itself an input that we can wire in contradictions. In other words, the conflict here has nothing to do with consciousness per se; or even free will; it's simply a result of effects having antecedent causes, an oracle being an antecedent cause, and the mechanism to "counter" that cause. But this description in itself is enough to import "evitability", which gives you survival advantages.

  • 1
    Quoting this from here: Determinism seems to imply fatalism; if you can determine all future states of the universe with the laws of nature plus the initial state of the universe, then surely the truth value of all future-tensed propositions is decided (at least, I don't see how they would fail to be in any interesting way)., this is how I view determinism. You're able to pick 4 even if the oracle says you'll pick 3, it's because of the assumption that there can be an oracle possible.
    – Gokul NC
    Dec 14, 2017 at 8:25
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    Assuming that there is an oracle, and you pick 4 when oracle says 3, we have arrived at a contradiction to the statement that 'there is an oracle, which always tells the truth from future', because here, oracle's assertion that you will pick 3 has failed. So the oracle you have proposed cannot be logically existent.
    – Gokul NC
    Dec 14, 2017 at 8:30
  • Aha, I was right; you're confusing determinism with fatalism. "we have arrived at a contradiction" ...exactly, but contradiction's don't prove that a particular premise you had is wrong; they only prove that something is wrong. "it's because of the assumption that there can be an oracle possible" ...exactly; this is a hidden premise. That's the key. Let's assume we don't assume the oracle's possible; let's assume in particular that we don't even have an oracle... just some guy, Ralph. But play the same game; Ralph is going to predict your outcome.
    – H Walters
    Dec 14, 2017 at 15:06
  • ...ported this into the answer. I realize, btw, that this is long, but I'm pretty sure this is exactly what you're asking. I think the basic issue here is that you're assuming determinism must lead to fatalism, possibly by some argument that's flawed but that you don't put forward in such a way that you can find the flaw (such as "if determinism is true then in principle we can say what happens" which generally would hold, except under specific circumstances for specific reasons, which happen to be directly related to your question).
    – H Walters
    Dec 14, 2017 at 17:24
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    I thought adding hard-determinism would make one to easily realize this statement: The conscious experiences that accompany brain processes are causally impotent. And so, my ultimate question is this: "if the next conscious experience is independent of the past conscious experiences, what real help is consciousness doing?" || since consciousness is causally impotent, it plays no role in our survival. So can this mean evolution is flawed? Or can it mean epiphenomenalism is flawed(which in a way can mean hard-determinism is flawed)? Or can they both be compatible in some way?
    – Gokul NC
    Dec 15, 2017 at 14:29

My account is from continental philosophy viewpoint, specifically, Sartrian existentialism.

the next conscious experience is independent of the past conscious experiences

This looks true. But the previous conscious experience is dependent on the "next", the expected. If we remember the preceeding/past experience and it has meaning, this is because we are projecting ourselves into future. It is the possible our future (which we are by the mode of nonbeing) that attaches meaning (and hence articulatedness) to the past. I.e. past is pending on future; it is but due to future that an experience becomes past. And that is thanks to consciousness.

The future is not dependent on the past, for consciousness, because consciousness is free. However, possibilities (the future) that we will discover or discern shall emerge on the ground of the past: it is conditioning, not determination (a condition is a passive limitation).

So, time arises as temporalization where future precedes past, and between the two there is the absolute link-division in the form of Nothing. And here is where consciousness is found. While the naive (psychical, physical, common sense) time operates on "mental" objects exactly the way it does with "external" objects; and here is no room for consciousness.

For, indeed, there is no anything in consciousness; it is void of content. So called "thoughts" have nothing to do with consciousness proper - they are objects in the world, only irreal ones. Consciousness is empty activity and its only function is the flight from facticity to some own possibility, existing by the mode of non-being. (Roughly saying it, the run from a stagnant to a meaningful.) This what Sartre calls the project and other somewhat close words to it are intention, prereflective conception, temptation.

If Pierre takes a second bite, it is not caused by his pleasure from the first; If Pierre says, "That was good, so I will take another bite"

is because Pierre currently is in the project of eating that specific meal (and ultimately, because the meal and eating of it is the outline [of qualia] of Being for Pierre), and so any sensation he gets from bites will be interpreted as good, - until he suddenly "stumbles" in this his world stream and falls out from the project to some other one freely chosen by his consciousness among several emerged possibilities.

The control we feel is the degree to which our predicted outcome is expected to match the inevitable outcome

Consciousness (or "for-itself") cannot support contact with Being (or "in-itself") with its (the Being) characteristics of "determined", "inevitable", "contingent", "random". Consciousness flights away from these towards own possibilities. (To escape the fear of falling from the rock I change it to angst of getting in consent with my falling or even jumping from the rock.) So there can never be inevitable outcomes for consciousness to match with. Inevitable (as well as objectivistically probable) things can be for science. But science is our "thoughts", i.e. it is a collection of objects of the world - real or modeled - which can appear only in front of (or for) consciousness and not inside it. But to be an object for a consciousness (i.e. to be positioned by it) means the flight of the consciousness away from being that object towards own possibility about (concerning) the object. Thus, the citation above appears an inadequate merging of not mergeable matters.

An important notion should be that Consciousness and Being (transcendent reality) are two abstractions that do not preexist their fundamental relation (the "flight"); rather, the relation preexists as primordial synthesis. There is Being (pure facticity out of meaning, causations, time) and there is ceaseless accident of dispersion or cracking of it whereby it is negated (the result of what is the constitution of world), the accident we call "consciousness".

  • The last part sounds exactly like Judgement and Being by Hölderlin (1795). Is that really Sartrian still? I'm not too deep into Sartre, but from what I know, this does not really sound like him, does it?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 17, 2017 at 13:46
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    @Philip, I'm not deep into Sartre myself, I claim. If your comment is about my last paragraph, it is the impression which, I remember, left in me from Being and Nothingness, 1.1.1. "Question", - there Sartre directly refers to the primordial concrete synthesis as Heidegger's "being-in-the-world" as the primary ontologic givennes. Sartre borrowed this initial idea from Heidegger (as "human-reality") who influenced him much. And we know, too, that Hölderlin was Heidegger's haunt throughout his philosophical activity.
    – ttnphns
    Dec 17, 2017 at 14:28
  • (cont.) If you want to point me concretely where and how I sound not like Sartre (which is possible!) please do it.
    – ttnphns
    Dec 17, 2017 at 14:32
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    Nah, I do not want to doubt anything you said, the striking resemblance basically just made me curious. Thanks for pointing me to the corresponding chapter, will read it up (in my next life, when I got time on my hands again). Heidegger as a link sounds possible, although I am not too sure regarding the availability of Hölderlin's fragment at the time. Cheers!
    – Philip Klöcking
    Dec 17, 2017 at 14:36
  • @Philip, it is possible that Heidegger felt the kinship and affinity with the poet before the paper Judgement and Being (btw I haven't known of it) was available, and he transferred the piece of mind to Sartre.
    – ttnphns
    Dec 17, 2017 at 14:42

what purpose does [consciousness] serve

It aids survival

when the flow is already deterministic?

That's irrelevant if the conscious entity cannot fully determine the next state. It may be relevant for a hypothetical, supernatural being but that's not at question here.

if the next conscious experience is independent of the past conscious experiences

They're not in any being that we know to be conscious. If you start to define consciousness as having properties that definitely don't apply to consciousness then you're best to just make up a new word and define, explicitly, its properties.

  • 1
    It aids survival But as I said in the question, assuming that there is no universal free-will, and The conscious experiences that accompany brain processes are causally impotent, how does consciousness help in survival? Here, I wish to distinguish between consciousness and physical experience. I can agree to the fact that Physical experiences aid in survival, but consciousness is something subjective which we perceive as stimulus to the physical experiences, it maybe neurological or whatever.
    – Gokul NC
    Dec 13, 2017 at 16:09
  • Also, here by consciousness, I refer something like Qualia.
    – Gokul NC
    Dec 13, 2017 at 16:09
  • @GokulNC freewill is irrelevant here because whether or not you perceive a choice is independent to whether or not you have a choice at a fundamental level. And usually, survival choice is an evolutionary trait present in any species that has hung around for more than a few generations. Consciousness is a survival tool above instinct because it provides the ability to plan based on our perceptions as well as our experiences.
    – Alex
    Dec 13, 2017 at 17:18
  • If you view consciousness as an emergent trait of the complex human brain, then you also have to accept that it is a necessary trait of the complex human brain. In other words, you couldn't have evolved the same brain with the same features, and not have consciousness (one of the reasons 'p-zombies' are an incoherent concept). The 'purpose' of consciousness is the same as the 'purpose' of life; it just is because of the nature of things. Dec 13, 2017 at 18:57
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    @Alex it provides the ability to plan based on our perceptions as well as our experiences. No, if you had read my last quote in the question, you wouldn't have said like that :) || @kbelder it just is because of the nature of things. Yeah, all questions can be answered like this, but here I am trying to find if there's any explanation to it, not to merely accept its presence :)
    – Gokul NC
    Dec 14, 2017 at 13:51

Intentionality or purposiveness is an aspect of consciousness and this is not controversial.

To ask what the purpose of consciousness is a different question from this and it means asking larger questions about the place of consciousness in world or cosmos. Here are two possibilities:

For evolutionary biology, consciousness is an adaptation that helps ensure our survival as a species. Although this can be phrased in terms of purpose and intention, a close analysis of the terms shows that neither purpose or intention obtains here. For example, there is no such thing as a 'selfish gene'. They are purely technical terms that helps explain the mechanics of evolution and natural selection.

Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit, said that the purpose of consciousness was for the universe to come to know itself.

  • for the universe to come to know itself. Can you please explain this?
    – Gokul NC
    Jan 19, 2018 at 4:47
  • @GokulNC: You'll have to read Hegels Phenomenology of Spirit. I'm not upto explaining it this morning. Jan 19, 2018 at 8:36

A possible answer to the question regarding the purpose of consciousness can be found in Bergson's Creative Evolution. It is only a possible one.

Also, you may have a look at : https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/#FunQueWhyDoeConExi

Bergson's reasoning is as follows :

(1) In automatic action , consciousness is absent.

(2) But consciousness reappears when automatism fails.

(3) When automatism fails, we have to act after a choice.

(4) So, the function of consciousness must be to give us the ability to act intelligently , freely, that is to perform deliberate actions.

(5) The function of consciousness is not to provide us with knowledge, it is a not a theoretical/ function; rather, consciousness has a practical function. Consciousness is a product of life ( at least , in one of the possible directions life has followed, the other being the instinctive life direction represented paradigmatically by instects).

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Everyone is ignoring or writing off the directly implied premise of determinism (implicit in the posited framing epiphenomenalism) which means they are all answering a different question from the one that is asked.

Under determinism, the notion of purpose is lost. Everything exists for the purpose of determining the determinism. And that is already determined. So any existing purpose is already served perfectly, but it is served due to the nature of the universe, and not on purpose.

The question presumes the opposite is possible. It makes a distinction between the driving force of the deterministic process, and our experience of it, and writes the experience off as redundant. But experiences, like everything else, are just part of the driving force, not something that can have a separate purpose. Nothing can.

And 'being determined by everything in the universe' does not constitute a purpose, either. Something serves a purpose because it causes something to come to pass, meaning that coming to pass needs a cause, and it might not happen. Under determinism, either the possibility of causing or the possibility of not happening is a delusion. So if the world is determined, 'purpose' is a delusion.

That it spawns a string of other delusions like 'consciousness' is irrelevant. Deducing assertions about meaningless categories renders the question senseless. You have either accepted determinism and ruled out purposes, or you have not. But if you have, you cannot then expect consciousness to have a purpose.

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