first post on this stack exchange site and I've already restated my question because of this answer on the main toppic but yet:

I'm not going to enter into the debate whether or not we do have a free will - at least not to deep -, but I wonder, if we wouldn't have a free will:

Why do we think(/feel) we have?

I know my thoughts are mostly governed by my subconsciousness (by definition stuff I'm not, partially or temporarily aware of), but this consciousness of mine (and yours (I presume) (at least of all the people I talked about this with)) is pretty damn convinced that it has a free will...

I don't know whether people of other cultures feel the same, or believe otherwise?

But if there wouldn't be a free will,

what is the reason why we feel/think there is?

What would be the (biological(or other)) advantage?

  • Free will is not bound to consciousness, many voluntary actions are performed subconsciously, see Does having free will presuppose consciousness. Nahmias found that "telling people that free will is an illusion leads people to cheat more, help less, and behave more aggressively", so the "willusion" might be a biological/cultural adaptation to maintain socially beneficial behavior. Just as common moral sentiments are taken to be. See Why ‘Willusionism’ Leads to ‘Bad Results’
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 26, 2019 at 17:54
  • Why do people believe any falsehoods? That's not really a question for philosophy as much as psychology. (And count me as someone you "know" who doesn't believe in libertarian free will. There are many such people.)
    – Chelonian
    Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 21:16
  • In what respect does this question differ from "I've never had and won't ever have a silvery Jaguar, still at nights I sometimes dream I own it. Why?"
    – ttnphns
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 7:49
  • You ask the question I've been wondering the same.
    – Bread
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 15:10
  • A silvery Jaguar is not exactly a way of looking at the world, it's a mere possession, it doesn't touch as deeply who I am or how I look to the world...
    – SandTh
    Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 5:30

3 Answers 3


Spinoza, a non believer in free will, argued in Ethics that people feel they are free because they ignore the causes that determine their actions.

It makes sense, considering the overwhelming number of parameters in action when we make decisions, that we can't be aware of all of them.

In particular, if we consider our desires, the motivation behind our actions, to be so determined by external factors, it is only natural that, being aware of the fact that we want something, but unaware of what made us want it, or even that some external cause made us want it, we attribute this will to our self, giving birth to the illusion of free will.

Considering potential advantages, I don't think they are necessary for the illusion of free will to be pervasive. Just like all humans share the illusions of mirages, or optical tricks like perceiving black dots at the crossing of straight lines, etc, suffice for it to be a naturally occurring phenomenon (as we argued above) that is not a disadvantage enough to prevent us from having offspring (I am assuming you are asking about advantages related to natural selection, please CMIIW).

Edit : About why we are unaware of the causes of our desires, this simply is a consequence of the fact that we lack the cognitive power to analyse our every desire. We spend our entire life desiring stuff all day long, and simply don't have the time to pause and analyse each single of our volitions. We also lack the knowledge of our own nature that would make this analysis fruitfull.

  • Seems unconvincing, your second paragraph. If there are so many (causal or ruling) parameters why should we be aware of none of them? For if we are aware of at least one, no illusion of free will would be necessary. What makes us unaware of "what makes us want"?
    – ttnphns
    Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 19:02
  • @ttnphns illusion of free will does not have to be necessary. I am just describing one way it could happen if we accept the premise that there is no free will (as the OP does in the frame of this question). It has been demonstrated that people have cognitive biases that can be used to purposefully influence their decisions without them noticing. Usually when we take a decision we know at least some causes, but they don't fully explain it, or the cause behind the cause is unclear. And we fill this knowledge gap with the idea that our self is free willing.
    – armand
    Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 23:33
  • I would argue logically if/because some people allow for free will while others believe only in determinism, that it should mean some people do possess free will while others do not. (Spinoza had a great mind, but I believe he missed that whether intentionally or not.)
    – Bread
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 15:41
  • Mirages are atmospheric reflections of light that are real, observable phenomena. The 'illusion' is the belief that the reflection is the actual object being reflected in the atmosphere.
    – Bread
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 15:44
  • 1
    Meh... William Bruce is definitively speaking about political freedom, here. This has nothing to do with free will. If I had free will, how could someone take it away ? You are confusing two concepts under a same name. That makes no sense.
    – armand
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 21:33

In this answer, I interpret the OP's "assuming we don't have free will" as assuming we believe that we don't have free will. Then the question is "Why do we still have the guess ("illusion") of free will counter our stance".

The idea that we don't possess free will (or freedom of consciousness, to be more precise) and that our actions are pre-determined cannot be convincing at own living process because it is a knowledge (set of view). Any knowledge is what was already assumed as a fact and therefore it is not helpful anymore. Knowledge lacks apodictic truth and to become persuasive it must be "handled" again or invented from scratch now.

At the same time, there is an intuition in everybody (which can become more apparent if an individual has sharpened his her momentary reflection) that whenever the moment we make choices or decisions we make it with the -consciousness of ungroundedness present. I.e. we do apprehand directly that nothing, and especially these here givennesses of the situation, are forcing us to select that which we are selecting. The spontaneous ("free") nature of a decision in a structured situation (we are "thrown in") is what makes every decision absurd and makes us responsible. To repeat, it is possible to discover this intuition directly and most of the time, if not ever.

But then we start to explain our made choice (we could start doing it soon too, less than a second after). And sure, we find reasons or causes for it - we invent determinism to ourselves. And past knowledge, both lay and theoretic ("neurons, genes" as one example) here is taken on readily as new, to help for present. I am not to state these explanations are "wrong" (after all, they're useful in praxis), only that they are worldly reasons, while decision making actually takes place via splitting oneself off the world (both "external" and "internal" world, if you are used to make this unnecessary distinction).

A particular phenomenologic-existential viewpoint I am trying awkwardly to express here makes no room for the option that there can be causality bypassing consciousness (i.e. something creeping subliminal/unobserved to create conscious experience). Causes or reasons can exist only for the consciousness. They are like any other phenomena. For example, there exist no other pain besides or in addition to the pain experienced, the pain ontologically is confined to the conscious phenomenon of this particular pain. There is no reality other than human-reality, albeit there can be humanless theories of the world.

We do have "free will" (freedom), it is not an illusion. Assuming we don't have it crashes in the very process of conscious life. But to agree with that, it is important to believe more immediate intuition than knowledge.


What would be the (biological(or other)) advantage?

Given that consciousness is a product of biological evolution, I think this framing of the question in terms of biological advantage is key.

An article "The biological function of consciousness" by Brian Earl is freely available. It argues first that executive functioning (essentially, "will") does not actually rely on consciousness. In other words, we are not aware of the actual mental processes that result in our decisions. However it then focuses specifically on the possible biological functions of consciousness despite this. I'm not qualified to make an assessment of Earl's argument, but it seems like a useful point of reference for the question posed here.

One point from that article that stands out to me in relation your question: "Self-related information, which is obviously very relevant to survival, is treated differently from all non-self information." The key conclusion that Early draws in relation to this is that "the biological function of consciousness is input data to a mechanism that generates flexible, intentional responses." Here are the first two paragraphs of the article's conclusion, with my emphasis added:

The behavior of all organisms is principally determined by automatic response programs: innate responses such as orienting and fixed action patterns, classical and operant conditioning, and other learned behaviors. Each of these is automatically released, or triggered, by a predetermined type of stimulus.

However, organisms that possess only automatic responses may sometimes have no response to match a situation that confronts them, and some kind of best choice response, no response, or a random response is used, any of which could result in a missed opportunity or a risk to the organism. Because of this vulnerability, a flexible response mechanism (FRM), which may perhaps be a combination of mechanisms, has evolved to generate responses to novel situations, and consciousness is a component of this mechanism.

This "flexible response mechanism", as I understand it, is precisely the process we experience as "free will".

  • Can it be stated that "[awareness] of consciousness is a product of biological evolution"? (Because humans are aware not only of our own consciousness but also that of others.)
    – Bread
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 15:27
  • Sure. And quite probably not humans alone.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 20:24
  • Dewey explained that ideas which originate in philosophy eventually, over a period of at least a century, spread throughout the populace and become generally accepted and believed. The American Declaration was written roughly 100 years after the essayists described individual liberty. Descartes described 'free will'400 years ago. So because his ideas spread and influenced many other thinkers and influenced today's scientific method, it can be stated with some surety that the notion of Hunan free will is sourced in his writings in the "Meditations". CMS
    – user37981
    Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 1:01

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