Introspectively speaking, it seems to me obvious that free will is illusion. Thoughts just emerge from background causes, and actions are just thoughts about actions that we have more thoughts about committing to bringing into being (more or less the argument Sam Harris puts forth). I say this not to make a case against free will, but I think it is an intuitive one.

Evidently, even if free will (the ability to do otherwise) does not exist, consciousness (our subjective, first person experience of the world) does. Now, I've often heard it argued that consciousness is an evolved attribute that has some sort of adaptive function when it comes to the survival of organisms (think Searle's biological naturalism, for example). Arguments of the nature seem to hinge on the notion of "downward causation", where the emergent mind is able to influence the body (as opposed to epiphenomenalism). For instance, people will often argue that consciousness enables decision-making and complex thinking in living organisms, which is why it has evolved as a trait of certain organisms.

But, if one grants that free will is an illusion, what kind of adaptive benefit could consciousness really provide? What could "downward causation" even look like in the absence of free will? What would an argument for downward causation and against epiphenomenalism look like in a no-free will context?


Consciousness concerns awareness of one's environment and possibly some introspective knowledge if such there be. Deterministic consciousness need not lack utility. On the contrary: if there is a deterministic explanation of my seeing a dangerous animsl heading towards me, and if this visual experience connects with my deterministic desire to survive, then the deterministic behaviour of fleeing the scene is more than modestly useful. At least to me.

The above is a very rough sketch of deterministic action - I would not try to pass it off as anything else - but it yields the utility of consciousness with the complete exclusion of free will. I conclude that consciousness has utilty even if free will is an illusion.

Given consciousness I may not be able to act otherwise than I do, but acting deterministically as I do is a capacity not without utility. We may doubt this in the case of particular persons but the generalisation holds good.

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  • But can't information about environment and so on register in the brain without there being any "felt" states to accompany it? Or do you think that consciousness could integrate information in the most efficient way? Also what do you mean by "introspective knowledge"? – natojato Dec 10 '19 at 16:40
  • Hello:I assume that we have consciousness.The question then is: what good is it, why do we need it? I tried to explain what good it might serve.I dd not say or imply that any good could not be served without consciousness via some form of externalism. I introduced introspection only to acknowledge that we are conscious not only of approaching bears and the like but also of our own states of consciousness. The main point in any case I took to be the utility of consciousness in face of free will as an illusion. I argued that free will could be an illusion but consciounesness still be useful. – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 10 '19 at 18:42
  • I was engaged in a conceptual exercise, working out what did or didn't follow on the questioner's own asssumptions. Just wanted to explain that - my reply seemed a bit abrupt otherwise. All the best - GLT. – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 10 '19 at 18:46

Whether "free will" exists, or not, or the concept is meaningless, is irrelevant to the question of the adaptive benefit of consciousness. The reason is that whatever "free will" might possibly mean, it is definitely meaningless without consciousness. So, in the evolutionary process, consciousness either does, or does not, evolve; if it does, this might, or might not, lead to the emergence of "free will". The last step cannot influence the previous one, causation goes another way.

As for the role of consciousness, bear in mind that not all evolutionary change is adaptive. Some change is just an unavoidable byproduct of previous steps. Survival instinct is possessed by the most primitive living creatures. Later on, when animals evolve larger brains which allow them to come up with complex strategies, it stands to reason that in order to better plan one's survival and procreation, one has to have a good mental picture of oneself. And, as previous generations fed themselves and made nests for themselves, the new ones begin to think about themselves. That's your consciousness in a nutshell.

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  • new ones begin to think about themselves Under the condition that there is no free will, the OP asks what utility does consciousness have, if already things are deterministic? Or to rephrase, can I not design a P-Zombie which is as successful as a conscious thing? – Gokul NC Apr 16 at 16:45
  • @GokulNC sure you can. But the question is about evolution, not design. Evolution has no hindsight: even if a P-Zombie would have been enough, but consciousness evolved first, there's no way to go from second to first. – IMil Apr 16 at 22:57
  • Thanks :) Any references for the supposition that consciousness would have evolved before the emergence/non-emergence of free-will? Or just an idea? – Gokul NC Apr 17 at 4:32
  • @GokulNC all the definitions of "free will" that I've seen rely, either explicitly or implicitly, on existence of consciousness. I'm not saying that non-free-will consciousness (whatever this could mean) has to evolve before free-will consciousness (assuming this means anything). Could be simultaneous. But free will before consciousness? Try to define this first. – IMil Apr 17 at 5:43
  • I think that the discrepancy is because of the assumption that consciousness and free will are independent. Just because we all agree on consciousness but not on free-will, doesn't mean we can establish a causal relationship between consciousness and free-will (or say hard-determinism). Hope I am making sense. – Gokul NC Apr 17 at 7:52

Free will has direct relation with the sense of I, without I there is no Free will.

Consciousness has levels:

  • perception.

  • thinking.

  • sense.

All of these levels have direct relation with the I-ness, hence, has direct relation with Free will.

Free will doesn't mean that all the I wants takes place, but it is a mixture, a blend of sometimes takes place and sometimes not.

The higher level of consciousness, i.e: sense, causes the sensation of Free will, and is also caused by Free will.

So, higher level of consciousness is both cause and effect of Free will.

It seems that higher level of consciousness is meaningless without Free will, since higher level of consciousness is both cause and effect of Free will.

The question is: does lower level of consciousness i.e: perception, have a meaning in absence of free will?.

For me, it seems that lower level of consciousness has no meaning without Free will.

Thus, it seems that all levels of Consciousness are of no utility if Free will is an illusion, if there is no Free will.

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