I think scientists agree that we're conscious and aware that we have consciousness and awareness. But they don't agree on whether we have free will. I think they don't even have a universal definition of the term, so, for the purposes of this question, I want to attempt to define it as the ability of the "conscious component" of us to affect our body. (I'm not sure how little sense this definition makes, but I hope it's able to convey why I'm asking the question.)

Moreover, I hope scientists agree that consciousness is a quality that was selected for over the course of our evolution starting, at the beginning, from unconscious simple molecules.

My question is: If we don't have free will, why was the quality of being conscious selected for? What advantage is there for being conscious of our environment if the conscious part of us has no way of affecting our physics/biology?

  • We don't exactly understand how natural selection, and physics/chemistry go together. The Miller Urey experiment is the most we understand at the moment, but even that doesn't give any details of mechanism. So all we can do is speculate a lot. – user2277550 Jun 10 '18 at 17:20
  • People like Sam Harris who advocate unfree will, see it as a useful subjective illusion. I am inclined to see as mainly a language and category problem. – CriglCragl Jun 10 '18 at 18:27
  • Why do you assume it was selected for? See: newscientist.com/article/… – Chelonian Jun 11 '18 at 14:57

You may have written yourself into a corner. By defining free will to be the ability for one part of our body (the "conscious part," as you coin it) to interact with the rest of the body and the environment, you define "free will" to exist as long as one is conscious and that consciousness can affect the environment. As such, when combined with the claim that someone believes we are conscious, this directly implies that that someone believes we have free will.

The confusion you are running into is that all of the words you are using are notoriously difficult to pin definitions to, but you pinned a few definitions to them. Now you see that it's very difficult to create consistent theories using those definitions. This is the reason why there are not universally accepted definitions of those words: its hard to create consistent theories with those definitions.

This confusion is then compounded by a teleological approach to evolution. When it comes to evolution, the reason why something was selected is not specified. It is stated that the individuals who had this trait were more fit, and thus reproduced better, but it does not specify anything about why they were more fit. We do indeed seek to find after-the-fact explanations, such as claiming that Cicada's developed a 13 year dormancy cycle to outwit predators, but that is merely our model of what happened.

To understand the difference, consider a coin that is flipped 4 times. It lands heads up every time. We may see a pattern of "oh, the coin landed heads up every time." In reality, there was no "why" to this pattern, because it was truly random. But that doesn't prevent us from fitting patterns to it.

Accordingly, it may make sense not to think of it as "Consciousness exists, and we are conscious," but "We exist, and consciousness is the thing we have." The latter points out the reality that we really define consciousness based on what we have. If we had something different, we would define it different.

And so, the best reason why we can say evolution selected consciousness is because we are alive. One can go into modeling, and try to identify traits that we can use to provide an explanation for this (there do seem to be advantages to being able to be aware of your own actions), but that is merely an explanation. Nothing more.


My question is: If we don't have free will, why was the quality of being conscious selected for? What advantage is there for being conscious of our environment if the conscious part of us has no way of affecting our physics/biology?

Your argument seems to be:

(1) If we don't have free will then our phenomenal consciousness makes no difference to our behaviour.
(2) If phenomenal consciousness makes no difference to our behaviour then it provides no evolutionary benefit to have phenomenal consciousness.
(3) If phenomenal consciousness provides no evolutionary benefit then we wouldn't have it.
(4) But we have phenomenal consciousness.
(C) Therefore we have free will.

There are multiple issues. Firstly, if we subscribe to certain ideas in philosophy of mind then this argumentation doesn't apply. If we can link phenomenal consciousness to physical brain processes then no free will is necessary to explain an evolutionary benefit. Only the physical brain processes that determine behaviour would have to be explained evolutionary. This would reject premises 1 and 2. It's the main issue of the implicit argument in your question.

To put it differently: if all our behaviour is unfree then that unfree behaviour can still be explained evolutionary. But then how does this lead to phenomenal consciousness? That's what needs to be explained. There are multiple physicalist ideas to do so. They all have their fair share of problems, however.

Secondly, we could also attack premise 3. You're writing of "selected for". This seems or at least sounds like a misconception of how evolution works. By putting it like this, we make natural selection into a teleological process. (Well, to be more precise, a teleological process of a problematic kind.) But we could also describe it much differently. For example, we might say: if a trait is detrimental to survivabilty (and hence is a evolutionary impediment) then it lowers the chances of passing on the trait; if a trait is beneficial to survivabilty then it highers the chances of passing on the trait. With this view it is perfectly possible for a random trait that only isn't detrimental to be passed on.


Free will is the idea we do what we wish. In an earthly sense, this fits in perfectly creating a society as it is. Jailing the criminals who misuse their free will and crowning the adherers of accepted morality.

Put it in a cosmic sense, and you see the unjustness of said society. Do humans program themselves before being born? No. They don't choose their personality. It is both inherent and changed due to environment. So, if a man doesn't get to choose his own self behavior, his likes and wants, then how is he doing anything he wants? He is simply a randomly generated character playing out a determined life.

Consciousness makes one think they act on their own accord, but actually consciousness plays the said personality that cultivated itself. Freewill is an illusion that flows with consciousness. BTW, true free will is actually impossible.

  • I made some edits for grammar and spelling. You may roll these back or further edit. I tried to keep your intent. Do you have references for positions similar to yours? This would help readers get more information and support your answer. Welcome to the SE! – Frank Hubeny Jun 11 '18 at 1:10
  • Thanks for that. There's a YouTuber named Cosmic Skeptic. He has a few videos regarding freewill. Besides that, nothing since this idea was mostly self-realized. – Hittfler Jun 11 '18 at 1:25

The case for agency is trivial

You write:

I want to attempt to define [free will] as the ability of the "conscious component" of us to affect our body.

That already has a name; that is called agency.

Agency is the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment.

Note that Agency and Free Will normally are not considered the same. But in your post you have decided to define Free Will differently, so that it overlaps with Agency.

So you want to know what kind of evolutionary pressure could cause the emergence of agency.

It is trivial to claim that the ability to make an informed decision based on available data is an evolutionary advantage, because that allows intelligence to help protect you and to help you survive long enough to procreate.

This article on Huffpost explores the subject a bit further.


Whether it has free will or not does not matter, consciousness was selected to be in us (and probably in other higher animals) only because it can help increase the chance of our survival. Evolution is the process that selects traits that increase the chance of survival of organisms. It does not care about free will. Our reflexes, autonomic functions, cerebellar functions, and all other functions in our bodies do not have free will, yet they are selected to be in our bodies just because they help increase the chance of our survival.

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