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?

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    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 16:08
  • Why does consciousness have to be useful at all? Evolution is an undirected process that does not always come up with useful features. It suffice that those features are not penalizing enough that we can live old enough to reproduce. We all have a totally useless appendix at the end of our intestines (or at least, its use has not been found as of yet). Whales still have pelvis bones thought they have no leg to fix on. It does not have to serve a purpose, it just is.
    – armand
    Commented Jan 18, 2021 at 7:35

6 Answers 6


Just because natural selection generally favours adaptive traits, does not mean that every evolved trait is adaptive. It is entirely possible for traits that are either neutral or deleterious to become fixed in a population as a result of evolutionary pressures. This mistaken idea is a very common fallacy when it comes to understanding evolution.

For neutral traits, they might become fixed by pure happenstance, simply because they happened to be colocated with adaptive traits, even though their presence neither increases nor decreases the fitness of the organism. For a non-biological example, imagine a coffee shop switching from cups with black text to cups with green text. You might wonder what kind of advantage to the business this presents, when in reality it's because the shop switched their cup provider for one that makes cheaper, higher quality cups, but it also happens to offer prints only in green, not in black. Even though switching the cups was advantageous to the business, changing the colour of the text itself wasn't.

Neutral traits might also arise randomly, due to mutation, and then become fixed even though they don't have any particular advantage or disadvantage. For the coffee shop, maybe the cups and the provider are the same, but the new CEO simply likes green better. The business operates exactly as it did before, and the colour change doesn't make a difference.

For deleterious traits, they might become fixed if they're a byproduct of other, advantageous traits. For example, sickle cell anaemia in humans is a recessive genetic disorder which happens when a person inherits a particular variant of the gene from both of their parents. Even though SCA is a serious, lifelong disease which significantly reduces fitness, the genes responsible for it remain firmly-fixed and prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa, because for individuals with only one copy, they confer significant resistance to malaria, which is endemic in the region. In the coffee shop example, let's say they switched to thinner, untextured sleeves, which don't insulate as well and your coffee is more likely to burn your hands. It's not that burning the customers' hands is good for business, it's just that the thinner sleeves are half the price and the savings are worth it to the company.

Neutral traits can also be byproducts of other traits. If you observe that all coffee shops seem to serve coffee in cups with a differently-coloured strip running horizontally across them, it's not because that confers a particular advantage, it's simply that it's better to have cups made of high-quality, bleached paper, it's better to have sleeves than not, and it's better to have sleeves made of cheaper, recycled and unbleached cardboard.

Lastly, the status of a trait (advantageous, neutral or deleterious) can change after it has already evolved, as the environment changes and other traits arise.

So, in conclusion, even though you observe consciousness and it seems to be evolutionarily stable under natural selection, it's not a given that it was consciousness itself that was selected for, or that it has any particular utility.

  • 1
    True that not all evolved traits are beneficial, but if the illusion of free will or consciousness were not deleterious enough to select out individuals with that trait, we would expect that those traits would disappear over time, as individuals with less of a sense of free will etc. would have more brain resources to devote to other computational power. Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 15:56
  • This seems contradictory; if they're not deleterious enough to select against, then we wouldn't necessarily expect them to disappear from the population. Either way, it remains the case that a trait being fixed in a population is no guarantee of its utility, which is the core of the answer to OP's question.
    – mathrick
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 22:47

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 animal 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 utility 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.

  • 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
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 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
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 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
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 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.

  • 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
    Commented Apr 16, 2020 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
    Commented Apr 16, 2020 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
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 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
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 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
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 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.


I would look to Global Workspace Theory, on why we have a unified singular awareness, it is the workspace, or 'desktop' of mental processes, with different subroutines competing for attention & integrated there - if you look at convolutional neural networks, essential to developing digital vision processing we can picture how this happens. Split-brain patients also, show the multi-agent nature of our brains, with one hemisphere tilted towards modelling ourselves, one tilted towards modelling the environment.

I would like to take a moment to point out, that in a reductionist physicalist-materialist determinist view, the distinction between ourselves & our environment is strictly speaking, an 'illusion'. But this gets at why stating this doesn't add content. We are atoms, the world is atoms, there is no fundamental substance differentiation. But, it is a useful conceptual distinction to differentiate the lump of phenomena we call body & mind, which have persistent traits while alive, from world, which is far more variable.

So the workspace integrates data, piecing the information from our tiny points our eyes focus, with fuzzier images in peripheral vision, & processing like edges & depth perception, into a mental model that gives persistence to things not currently seen or focused on, and integrated with our dispositions & concerns - Donald Hoffman is great on Do we see reality as it is? & how evolution will supply motivated information aimed toward successful reproduction, over dispassionate 'objective' data. We need tools like examining cognitive biases & consilience to make our models better. So this is the explanation of simple awareness anyway.

'Free will' is a conceptual framework or picture, that involves self awareness. I would look to Hoffstadter's strange loops to understand the significance of this. By having a self-model in the model of reality, we can amend or develop who we are, in relation to expectations about the future, informed by conceptual information gleaned from the past - that is, pictures of the past which sieve out noise (see salience landscapes). With a self-concept in the 'loop' a new behaviour occurs, feedback. A self can be situated towards the future, making decisions founded on an illusion, that of speculative histories: if I had done otherwise different thing/s would have happened. But you could not have done otherwise, that is the determinism. By holding models of the future in our brain, future timelines become more complex: harvesting of Gibbs free energy can be maximised, ie the hallmark of life, can be maximised. We expect to be able to identify distant aliens using this principle, both insentient & sentient, by degree of efficiency.

Evidence for the mechanism of developing a self-concept, can be found in mirror neurons. These help organisms model their bodily motions on those of others, to help with learning. They are far more present in social animals. And I would link them to intersubjectivity and the metaphor Indra's Net. The feedback between self-concept, and 'reading' others as though they had it, deepening the complexity of the mental model. The complex intelligence of largely solitary ravens & octopuses, illustrates problem solving intelligence seems to be on a different track. But conceptualising intelligence & language, how noises from our faces evoke things in the minds of others, hinges on intersubjectivity. Dunbar's number shows our neocortex relates to social group size, and allows impulse inhibition in relation to our social world.

So this is how I picture free will, in a compatibilist way. Free will is a 'useful illusion', like having a self separate from the world. It depends on a mental model based on the 'lie', that we could have done otherwise, which none-the-less produces real insights, which we cannot model human behaviour without.

The last piece of the puzzle, is incomplete information. Sensitivity to initial conditions, means even small discrepancies can have unpredictable scales of consequences. Conceptualising others as having personalities, rather than trying to predict their atoms, illustrates how much more efficient an explanatory layer can be, one we picture as supervenient. Whereas uncertainty about position & momentum of atoms rapidly invalidates a model in that 'fundamental' layer, the explanatory layer is far more robust, and efficient (ie, 'personalities').

Epiphenomanilism like the Chinese Room argument, is invalidated by the physical reality of information, as shown by the explanation of why Maxwell's Demon can't violate thermodynamics. Thoughts cannot be free-floating 'spandrels' that don't relate to fundamental realities, they are deeply related to and reflect them, in ways that sift out noise toward selecting outcomes from models of probability space.


  • So if fake free will results in us making the best choice we can, and that is what we would do if we actually have free will, then it becomes a meaninglessness term. Perhaps we can agree to just stop talking about it, like ghosts, or heat fluid?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 1:30

If free will is not real, and if also, life forms evolved by natural selection, then what is the best explanation for why humans evolved a sense of agency and conscious self-awareness?

It seems to me that one could imagine an engineered life form that acted exactly like human beings, but which had no sense of self-awareness or a so called "illusion of free will." Furthermore, the resources in the brain dedicated to creating awareness, and a sense of free will could be used for something else.

Usually, an evolutionary explanation for truly unnecessary traits is that they emerged by accident but were not deleterious enough to harm the life form. I can reason that it is possible that self awareness and an illusion of free will could have emerged accidentally by a series of mutations that were not wasteful enough of resources that they persisted, but it seems to me that such traits would eventually be deleted. Some humans for example would function the same in every way but would have somewhat less of a sense of agency and consciousness, and they would benefit from not wasting resources on these traits. Given enough time, those with less and less conscious awareness would be able to use the mental resources that would have been devoted to those things for more computing brain power.

So in my view, the question is not really why these things evolved, but why they have not disappeared. A possible explanation is that self consciousness is not the most efficient way for a brain to function, but it may be the only one that we have, we may have gone down a road too far to get out.

  • Let's hope that agency is not an evolutionary dead-end. It is probably the only thought I ever have that feels defeating.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 0:41
  • "the resources in the brain dedicated to creating awareness" - that is a fallacy. you don't know that the creation of awareness is a separate resource sink over and above what it already happening in the brain anyway.
    – Deipatrous
    Commented Sep 7, 2023 at 12:55
  • @Deipatrous I meant resources as a conjecture, however consciousness has thermodynamic and informational implications. If we can make AI that acts indistinguishably from a human we would have to conclude that either has emerged consciousness or that having conscious on top of behavior requires resources. Consciousness CAN affect classical reality by interacting with wave function. Commented Sep 19, 2023 at 13:07

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