NOTE: 'Free will' in this question describes an ability to have chosen otherwise, given the same circumstances.

According to American Scientist, Darwin came to a belief that we had no free will 30 years prior to his publishing The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (roughly 20 years prior to Origin of the Species). He stated:

"The general delusion of free will is obvious because man has power of action, & he can seldom analyse his motives (originally mostly INSTINCTIVE, & therefore now great effort of reason to discover them…)".

Anthony Cashmore, Doctor of Biology, Pennsylvania State University, explains his exploration of the notion of a genetic basis for consciousness and the associated belief in free will. Free Will is an Illusion, Biologist Says.

Consciousness has an evolutionary selective advantage: it provides us with the illusion of responsibility, which is beneficial for society, if not for individuals as well. In this sense, consciousness is our "preview function" that comforts us into thinking that we are in control of what we will (or at least may) do ahead of time. As Cashmore notes, the irony is that the very existence of these "free will genes" is predicated on their ability to con us into believing in free will and responsibility. However, in reality, all behavioural decisions are nothing more than a reflection of our genetic and environmental history.

"Whereas the impressions are that we are making 'free' conscious decisions, the reality is that consciousness is simply a state of awareness that reflects the input signals, and these are an unavoidable consequence of GES [genes, environment, and stochasticism]," Cashmore explained.

To summarize, Cashmore's argument is that free will is an illusion derived from consciousness, but consciousness has an evolutionary advantage of conferring the illusion of responsibility.

In The Atlantic, Philosopher Bruce Waller, Philosopher Professor at Youngstown, presents a different, compatibilistic view.

For Waller, it simply doesn’t matter that these processes are underpinned by a causal chain of firing neurons. In his view, free will and determinism are not the opposites they are often taken to be; they simply describe our behaviour at different levels.

Waller believes his account fits with a scientific understanding of how we evolved: Foraging animals—humans, but also mice, or bears, or crows—need to be able to generate options for themselves and make decisions in a complex and changing environment. Humans, with our massive brains, are much better at thinking up and weighing options than other animals are. Our range of options is much wider, and we are, in a meaningful way, freer as a result.

Bjorn Brembs, Professor at Universität Regensburg in Germany, (perhaps ambitiously) claims that with his article, "Towards a scientific concept of free will as a biological trait: spontaneous actions and decision-making in invertebrates" he has, "...argued successfully that we would not exist if our brains were not able to make a different choice even in the face of identical circumstances and history".

The explanatory power of evolutionary biology is considerable, but - ignoring other disciplines as much as possible for the moment - which of its principles and/or concepts might be employed in an attempt to discern whether the free will with which it has imbued us is illusory or accurate?

NOTE: This post may be deemed to insufficiently straddle the realms of science and philosophy; that it may be best asked in a separate stack. I have posted it here in the hope it contributes to a local accumulation of material relevant to the question of free will, and that whilst it focuses upon scientific enquiry, it poses a question which does not - according to a cursory review - appear to be adequately/conclusively answered by the literature. I hope it provokes a speculative discussion of biological principles which might fairly be considered "philosophy of biology". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines 'philosophy of biology' as:

"Philosophy of biology is the branch of philosophy of science that deals with biological knowledge. It can be practiced not only by philosophers, but also by scientists who reflect on their own work.

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    can you clarify what sort of "free will" you mean? im sure darwin would have understood free will in a religious way, where as modern science would be speaking about the state of consciousness
    – Ewan
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 11:52
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    You should probably look at evolutionary argument against naturalism (and objections to it) that employs this general line of reasoning: our beliefs are untrustworthy because evolution selects not for true beliefs but for adaptive behaviors. Plantinga traced it to Darwin and Lewis, and nicknamed it "Darwin's doubt". One can replace free will with any other belief we are inclined towards.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 12:58
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    Suggested 'evolution' tag. Minor edit to title to stave off closure.
    – J D
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 17:53
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    Here is Plantinga's example from Evolution, Epiphenomenalism, Reductionism:"When the soprano hits high C and shatters the champagne glass, it is not by virtue of the content or meaning of the line she sings that the glass is shattered; it is just by virtue of the physical properties of the event in question". The same goes for neurophysiological structures that represent content in brain (on physicalism). It is only their physical properties that are causal, not what the content is about.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 3:09
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    Right, the positive (theist) side of his argument is not really of interest to you, he is just offering a "better" alternative to naturalism. And the negative side is that evolution selects for properties orthogonal to the content of our beliefs. Therefore, we have no truth-related reason to hold on to them, and free will is one of them. Willusionists then add positive arguments that free will intuitions are, in fact, present in contexts where a "willing" cannot possibly be causally involved.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 3:54

3 Answers 3


None of these citations are actually about any evolutionary evidence for or against free will.

The citation of Darwin included no evolutionary evidence, just a reference to unconscious instincts. Cashmore argues for lack of free will because he says biological systems are determined, and reduce to physics. Waller and Brembs both say that neurology has refuted Cashmore's claim of determinism for our neurology (note physics is underdetermined, including at the macro scale with chaos systems, and the recursive and multi-stable-mode nature of brains makes them pretty much the penultimate example of a chaotic system), but both also hold by neuro-reductionism and causal closure to justify their rejection of free will. These may be biologists, but they are not rejecting free will based on data or reasoning from evolutionary biology.

Aside, Reductionism has basically failed as a Research Programme -- see section 5 of https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-reduction/. And Hempel's Dilemma nicely illustrates that causal closure cannot be a valid assumption so long as we are doing science. So all of these rationales are -- invalid -- as well as not being evolutionarily based.

An actual reference to evolution would cite evolutionary observations and principles. An example of an observation is that we humans have developed a near universal perception of, and resulting belief in free will. And there is clear evolutionary advantage to developing valid models and perceptions of ourselves and our world. That is why better and better senses are tuned by evolution. This EVOLUTIONAY EVIDENCE, then, is evidence FOR freedom of will.

Further evidence for the importance of a VALID perception of freedom of will, was the set of experiments cited in the Atlantic article on the moral behavior of people who lack such a belief. Detecting will, and then exercising it, is demonstrably critical to society functioning.

Cashmore, and the others, believe in evolution, AND believe that freedom of will is impossible. They then provide SPECULATIONS for how, somehow, a DELUSIONAL belief in freedom of will might somehow have developed. Note this is a direct violation of one of the core principles of evolutionary systems -- the value of valid perceptions. Our world IS a complex place, and generally no principles are without exceptions. It is POSSIBLE that our free will sense is one of the rare senses that is entirely delusional. But these authors provide no evolutionary evidence for their speculation of a "delusion", nor do they detail how such a delusion could have developed through the incremental processes of evolution.

There are some additional evolutionary evidences that apply to peripheral aspects of this question. Evolutionary tuning of consciousness, is only possible if consciousness is independently causal. See https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/On-James%27s-argument-against-epiphenomenalism-Wright/26c252092946be89571b9e5b8dad0858ef5ac259 The linked authors all AGREE that consciousness is causal, which they presumably do because they agree that epiphenomenalism is refuted. But this argument also refutes neural identity theory -- as all identity theories reduce to epiphenomenalism when one realizes that much of our mind processing is unconscious, and whether a process is unconscious or not is VARIABLE case to case.

Accordingly -- these authors are not only basing their rejection of free will on an invalid assumption of reductionism and causal closure, they also are basing their explanation of consciousness on an invalid theory of mind.

There is a further piece of evolutionary evidence, which bears on these author's dismissal of dualism. We humans have EVOLVED to be dualists: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/245874835_Descartes%27_Baby_How_the_Science_of_Child_Development_Explains_What_Makes_Us_Human Evolutionarily selected worldviews, under the principle of the evolutionary advantage of valid knowledge, should be presumed to be valid knowledge.

THESE are actual citations of evolutionary evidence, and none of these evidences support determinism, or the rejection of free will (or dualism). They instead support the opposite.

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    So much to discuss in relation to your answer. If you ever get the urge, or if anyone else does, go to this chat room. Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 6:38
  • There is NOT a clear evolutionary advantage to accurate perceptions. There are many well documented times when false perception is evolutionarily advantageous. 1) Adrenaline. Feeling fantastic when you're in danger, even when you are actually wounded or exhausted. Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 11:56
  • 2) Selective perception. If you perceived everything completely accurately it would be incredibly overwhelming. If you ever live in a house next to a train track, you simply stop noticing the trains. More than that, if you ever really focus on a task you don't notice other things happening around you (lost in thought, lost in a book, etc.)...useful if you need to sit in an uncomfortable spot while you are hunting a deer. livescience.com/6727-invisible-gorilla-test-shows-notice.html Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 11:57
  • 3) Your whole visual system, really. You perceive colors and tones adjusted relative to their surroundings. A bright indoor light looks bright, even if it is actually 100x dimmer than being in bright sunlight. Colors look the same under blue toned light vs red toned light, it's only when you have an immediate comparison that they don't. Etc. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Checker_shadow_illusion Consciously processing all of that would be overwhelming and unnecessary, you have a combination of physical and mental processing that happens unconsciously. Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 11:59
  • Oh, and I forgot, you don't notice that you are using two eyes... You just perceive one image+depth. And none of that is really an argument for or against free will. Natural selection isn't artificial...it isn't looking at the choices and trying to make good ones. Many traits survive that are only good enough, or even just not too bad. You can see other species which have stronger senses than humans (better eyesight, etc.) or much weaker senses. Some are missing a sense, some have entire senses that we don't. The most you can say is that the universe doesn't care if anyone survives or not. Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 12:06

Perhaps a simple argument would go along the lines of..

  • behaviours have a large effect on survivability
  • if behaviour is free then natural selection would not work
  • natural selection works
  • ergo behaviours are selected
  • ergo behaviours are inherited
  • ergo choice is not free

But I don't think it holds water. We know that behaviour is complex and "instincts" or inherited predispositions are blunt tools when it comes down to individual choices such as :"shall i write an answer to this post?"

So I don't think you can rule out free will, or rather lets say "individually variable behaviour", choices which are different for different individuals rather than determined by species.

  • Thanks. My initial response was to worry about, 'if behaviour is free then natural selection would not work'. My line of thought was, "If two people, one free and one not free, exhibited the same behaviours in the same circumstances, how would 'nature' know the difference?". Does that make sense? Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 23:17
  • presumably only the non-free behaviour would be inherited by the next generation
    – Ewan
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 9:33
  • Can you explain a little further? I'm fascinated by this question. Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 9:41
  • im not sure what you are getting at?
    – Ewan
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 10:30
  • My understanding of evolution is miniscule. I'm wondering why you say, "presumably only the non-free behaviour would be inherited by the next generation". Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 10:32

If we define free will as the ability to make decisions, there is no way this ability could be an illusion. Decisions are made anyway, our actions are not random and pointless, we do everything for a purpose.

So, someone with free will makes the decisions concerning every conscious being's voluntary actions. The default assumption is that everyone makes his/her decisions by him/herself.

I am not aware of any reason for an alternative assumption.

  • Given your definition, you are correct. However, I define free will as the ability to have control over one's decisions, and as the ability to have done otherwise in identical circumstances. But we've thrashed this out in the comments section before, to no avail, so I'll leave it there : ) Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 9:25
  • The circumstances are never identical, not even in theory. Next time, affecting the decision. there are memories of the first time and everything that happened since that. What do you mean by control over decisions? How does it differ from making the decision? Commented Dec 15, 2021 at 11:50
  • If you're keen, I started a [chat room]. Commented Dec 16, 2021 at 6:10

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