What is the relationship between consciousness and free will ? Many scientists think there is no free will. And does free will mean a phenomenon not bound by cause and effect ?

  • 2
    Does this answer your question? Does having free will presuppose consciousness, can philosophical zombies have it?
    – Conifold
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 20:51
  • 1
    The Libet Experiments suggest that our choices are made before we are conscious of making a choice. This suggests that our conscious may play no role in exercising free will.
    – nwr
    Commented Jan 19, 2023 at 22:45
  • 2
    @nwr -- the Libet Experiments do not lead to that inference. They would have had to show 100% or close to it predictability, and they were nowhere near. Multiple drafts, plus a central agent picking between the drafts, is what matches the Libet results, and explicitly includes free will. Also Libet has recently become a poster child for the replication crisis in science. Recent replications failed to reproduce the same results.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 17:44
  • 1
    @nwr This summary article reflects the consensus I have seen: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34325185
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 20:01
  • 1
    All I can say is we seem to want consciousness to possess free will.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 12:07

5 Answers 5


The terms are related, but have distinctions. The question is rather broad and is perhaps no small part of the core of philosophy of mind, but let's do a TLDR for the issues.

Well, there is no one definition for these terms, but 'consciousness' (SEP) is generally taken to be a question of sentience, awareness, and therefore rooted conceptually in the necessity of conceptual 'intentionality'. To be conscious is be busy being about things, and philosophers are fond of the term 'aboutness'. Conscious reflection is thought about one's thoughts. Conscious observation of the world are thoughts about the world.

In philosophy, intentionality is the power of minds and mental states to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs. To say of an individual’s mental states that they have intentionality is to say that they are mental representations or that they have contents.

It should be noted that some flavors of direct realism (SEP) reject mental representations.

Free will (SEP) as a concept is grounded more in terms of control, choice, decision, etc. Unconscious people don't make choices, aren't in control, don't make decisions, so on. The question of whether or not we have free will, and exactly what it is, is, of course, a matter of philosophical contention.

The term “free will” has emerged over the past two millennia as the canonical designator for a significant kind of control over one’s actions. Questions concerning the nature and existence of this kind of control (e.g., does it require and do we have the freedom to do otherwise or the power of self-determination?), and what its true significance is (is it necessary for moral responsibility or human dignity?) have been taken up in every period of Western philosophy and by many of the most important philosophical figures

So consciousness broadly is about experiencing mental representations, and if those representations are used to act in the world and are done without external control or coercion, are done with free will.

Thus, one can be:

  • Conscious but not exercising free will, such as in normal reflexes and sleep paralysis.
  • Conscious and exercising free will, the state of affairs for most people according to folk psychology.

But the converse can't apply. One does not speak about being unconscious and exercising will at all. Now, in philosophy, there are some who reject the existence of free will, and may claim that:

  • We are conscious but not exercising control, some flavor of epiphenomenalism (SEP) such as Huxley held.
  • Consciousness doesn't exist and is some sort of illusion, some flavor of eliminative materialism such as Dennett holds.


Note, it is possible to introduce additional questions about free will and consciousness. For instance, one can outline the dominant argument about the proper position on free will itself, as Nikos M has done in his answer. One might also invoke physicalist models of how consciousness correlates to neurological events. And lastly, it should be noted that the relationship between consciousness, which is mental, and action in the world, which is material or physical, then provokes a series of important questions, such as what exactly is the relationship between the mind and body. This question broadly labeled is covered by the term dualism (SEP). And if one starts exploring ideas that causation (SEP) that is typically held to govern the physical extension of the universe applies to the body, and the mind has a relationship to the body, the question then arises of what exactly would mental causation (SEP) governing action be. In the true spirit of philosophy, this then raises another plethora of questions, such as:

  1. Should one even accept dualism as appealing to the intuitions as it is, and reject it for some sort of monism?
  2. Is causation nothing more than an illusion of strong correlation?
  3. How exactly should we discover causation?
  4. Should mental causation be rejected as a post-hoc fallacy?
  5. Should one reject physicalism and materialism?

These questions, while excellent, add a level of complexity that make a brief Q&A answer not possible.

  • +1 Instinctive behavior is an unconscious response to stimulus while conscious. Flinching is a classic instinctive behavior. I would argue that flinching is an example of consciousness without free will since a flinch can't be controlled even though you are aware it's happening.
    – user64314
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 5:02
  • 1
    Word of warning. Unconscious mind was Freudian terminology, and has been abandoned in contemporary cognitive psychology for subconscious. And again technically speaking, human instinct is taken as metaphorical these days, so that flinching might better be labeled a reflex. So, can subconscious reflexes be experienced. You're damned right to point out they can. I'll add it in the predicate next to sleep paralysis. Thanks! :D
    – J D
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 8:34
  • @JD What about 2nd question cause and effect ?
    – quanity
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 13:19
  • @quanity Our understanding of "causation" has shifted dramatically over time, and is currently pretty vague. The best thinking I have seen on willing tries to flesh out a model of Agent Causation. Here is an example: academic.oup.com/book/6201/chapter/149807379. JD, you may want to expand a bit on this otherwise excellent answer, to include agent causation.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 17:55
  • @Dcleve You're trying to drag me down the rabbit hole of endless philosophical answers! :D I'll tack on an edit regarding the existence of the question of mental causation. Otherwise, there's fleshing out consciousness, fleshing out free will as Nikos has done, fleshing out mind-body dualism, fleshing out causality, until not topic remains exhausted. ; )
    – J D
    Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 18:30

This is rather an argumentation supporting the inter-relatedness of consciousness and free will, than an exhaustive answer.

The question is about the relation of consciousness (that I take as a form of self-awareness) and free will (that I take as the ability to make choices and act).

There are four alternatives to consider:

  1. There is no consciousness and no free will.
  2. There is consciousness but no free will.
  3. There is free will but no consciousness.
  4. There is both consciousness and free will.

Thesis 1) is that of incompatibilist illusionism. Thesis 2) is that of incompatibilist determinism.

I will not discuss, for the purposes of the present answer, these theses here. I will simply consider the phenomenal experience to be a strong clue to their implausibility, that has not been addressed adequately by these theses.

Instead I will concentrate on the last two theses.

Thesis 3) is somewhat awkward, in that free will takes a specific meaning, unrelated to conscious will. One often talks about reflexes and/or unconscious pursuit of goals and/or Libet-style experiments.

Mele argues that:

It is sometimes claimed that certain experiments show that free will is an illusion by showing that all decisions are made unconsciously. I have argued elsewhere that these experiments do not show that any decisions are made unconsciously. But suppose I am wrong about that. Even then, I argue, these experiments do not pose a serious threat to free will. First, one is not warranted in generalizing from findings about the decisions allegedly made in these experiments to the claim that all decisions are unconsciously made. Second, even if all decisions are made unconsciously, the findings are compatible with a modest time-lag hypothesis about our conscious detection of decisions we make, and the supposed truth of that hypothesis is compatible with our making some of our decisions freely.

Mele, Unconscious decisions and free will

Libet-style experiments are about the finding of the readiness potential (RP), which allegedly could predict the outcome of the agent's choice, some time before the agent reported making the choice. Thus the interpretation is that the choice was already made, before the person was aware of it.

Libet-style experiments are about the interpretation of what RP means. Up to 2012, where RP was given a definite explanation, which was confirmed, by Aaron Schurger et al, it was anybody's fancy. This alternative interpretation undermined the very premise that made Libet-style experiments relevant to free will debate.

As Aaron Schurger, Jacobo Sitt, and Stanislas Dehaene report, “it is widely assumed that the neural decision to move coincides with the onset of the RP” (2012, p. E2909). Like Trevena and Miller and myself, they challenge that assumption. In their view, the brain uses “ongoing spontaneous fluctuations in neural activity” (p. E2904) – neural noise, in short – in solving the problem about when to act in Libet-style studies. A threshold for decision is set, and when such activity crosses it, a decision is made. They contend that most of the RP – all but the last 150 to 200 ms or so (p. E2910) – precedes the decision. In addition to providing evidence for this that comes from the work of other scientists, Schurger et al. offer evidence of their own. They use “a leaky stochastic accumulator to model the neural decision” made about when to move in a Libet-style experiment, and they report that their model “accounts for the behavioral and [eeg] data recorded from human subjects performing the task” (p. E2904). The model also makes a prediction that they confirmed: namely, that when participants are interrupted with a command to move now (press a button at once), short response times will be observed primarily in “trials in which the spontaneous fluctuations happened to be already close to the threshold” when the command (a click) was given (p. E2905).

Mele, Free Will and Neuroscience: Decision Times and the Point of No Return

Thesis 4) is a statement of what we experience.

That free will necessarily implies consciousness is not so hard to understand. What does it mean to will, without being conscious of willing? "Will" loses much of the meaning we attach to the term. One can argue otherwise only at the cost of completely changing the meaning of "will", but then it can be argued whether that new term is of any relevance to our experience.

That consciousness implies free will, is more difficult to come to terms. The point made is that consciousness without having any effect or consequence whatsoever in the world is a useless artifact, having no consequence on anything. So far what we know is that nothing exists without effects, without having some consequence here or there. It is a highly implausible claim that consciousness is such a thing.

So if consciousness plays a part, how does it do it? The answer is, through free will. In other words, free will is what makes consciousness relevant in the world, how consciousness affects and has consequences in this world. This sense is what is meant that consciousness and free will are two sides of the same coin.

PS: That some actions (eg a reflex) might be "unconscious" or require no elaboration, does not contradict the previous points, as long as free will does exist and there are actions that are willed. Even a reflex can trigger or lead to some conscious action, thus the two are not mutually exclusive. For example, a reflex in a social setting can lead us to an elaborate decision making and action, in order to manage the reflex's consequences and so on.

A growing body of literature argues for unconscious effects on decision-making.

We review a body of such studies while acknowledging methodological limitations, and categorize the types of unconscious influence reported.

These effects intuitively challenge free will, despite being generally overlooked in the free will literature. To what extent can decisions be free if they are affected by unconscious factors?

Our analysis suggests that unconscious influences on behavior affect degrees of control or reasons-responsiveness. We argue that they do not threaten the existence of free will in general, but only the degree to which we can be free in specific circumstances.

Mudrik et al, Free will without consciousness?

PS2: Free will does not violate causality, see for example causality vs determinism. One can argue that causality, in some form, is even necessary for free will. But free will can violate determinism, and it can be argued that it has to violate determinism, if free will has any real meaning and is not simply illusionary.

PS3: Agent-causation theories are attempts to flesh out the details of how free will of conscious agents causes events and how this is related to (in)determinism.

PS4: Regarding philosophical zombies, see the post on the (un)soundness of arguments from conceivability, like the p-zombie argument.


  1. The unconscious will: how the pursuit of goals operates outside of conscious awareness
  2. A meta-analysis of Libet-style experiments
  3. Conscious intention and human action: Review of the rise and fall of the readiness potential and Libet's clock
  4. Why neuroscience does not disprove free will
  5. Unconscious decisions and free will
  6. Free will without consciousness?
  • 1
    Excellent answer. Free will does "violate" determinism by definition. In determinism all actions are causal reactions to prior events (=reflexes). There are no willed actions at all. Commented Jan 20, 2023 at 12:44

The important point to remember about consciousness is that we currently do not have any satisfactory explanation of it in terms of physics. As far as we can tell, consciousness is associated in some way with electrical activity in the brain. The deterministic view is that consciousness is caused by physical effects in the brain. To paraphrase their position- your brain is composed of particles (electrons, ions, atoms and molecules) which interact according to the laws of physics. The pattern of your thoughts follows the pattern of those interactions, and since those interactions are determined by the laws of physics your thoughts are also.

The challenge for the determinists is that we do not know how consciousness arises, so it is possible- in principle at least- that your thoughts are not directly determined by the configuration states of the particles within your brain. To use an analogy, consider something such as a memory stick. The configuration of electrons within the memory stick can encode information, but a given configuration does not have a one-on-one correspondence with a given meaning. A meaning arises as a consequence of an interpretation of the configuration state. What does the string of bits represented by the configuration state mean? Does it represent a collection of lottery numbers or a pattern of pixels in an image? Physics itself cannot tell you anything about what, if anything, the configuration state means.

Now consider consciousness in the same light. It is possible that a particular pattern of electrical activity in your head might be associated with the thought of a word such as serendipity, say. But no laws of physics can explain how you associate a meaning with the thought of the word serendipity. The stand-out characteristic of consciousness is that it blends self-awareness with an ability to confer meaning, and there is nothing whatsoever in physics that can account for that.

I have written in another answer that the equations of physics demand dimensional consistency, so that the dimensions on one side of an equation must be the same as the dimensions on the other. Given that, if physics were ever to provide a direct explanation of consciousness, it would be necessary for consciousness to have an associated set of physical dimensions, which seems to me to be an unlikely proposition.

However, if you are prepared to consider the prospect that there may be free will because consciousness is somehow uncoupled from the physical process in your brain, then you are presented with the challenge of explaining how a decision made at the uncoupled level of consciousness can then exert an influence that does cause a change to the motion of particles in your body whenever you decide to perform a physical act.

It seems clear to me that the question of free will must remain unanswered until we have a compelling explanation of the nature of consciousness and its link to physical processes in the brain.

  • Mental processes are not physical processes. Mental processes deal with immaterial ideas interacting in one way, physical processes deal with matter and energy interacting in another way. Neither can be described or modeled in terms of the other. Physical processes cannot make decisions, they have no concept of value or meaning. Mental processes cannot move physical things, they have no concept of matter or energy. Still, we know there is a coupling, the mind receives information about the physical through senses and outputs information through muscles. Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 5:14
  • @PerttiRuismäki I could not agree more. The apparent separation of mental and physical processes is currently an insurmountable challenge both for those who claim free will and those who deny it. Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 6:58
  • To me free will is not a question of claim or denial. To me it is only a matter of definition. What is it that we want to call by the name "free will"? Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 8:12

Free Will - Incompatibilists vs. Compatibilists

The consensus among philosophers specializing in the issue of free will is that it doesn't exist. However, they do differ on their description of this non-existent concept.

There are the incompatibilists who say a human is a "machine" whose input is ran through an unfathomably complex, hidden neural circuitry to formulate outputs.

There are the compatibilists who recognize the former description, but say since humans aren't aware of the circuitry, that's free will.

There are those who are hard determinists, some of which cite some theological depiction of no free will and some of which cite physical reductivism (equations for all phenomena).

Common Argument Against: There are those who say because of quantum mechanics, there's an underlying uncertainty we may never fully be able to predict, which reinforces the compatibilist view. A hard determinist would argue there are hidden variables that we don't yet have the tech to observe in order to predict quantum phenomena accurately. A hard determinist would also argue even if there's a limit to our epistemological understanding of our universe, our will still isn't free; governed by random fluctuations of quantum particles.

Consciousness and Free Will Relation

Everyone has their own depiction for what consciousness is; however, the general consensus is consciousness is the you; the entity sitting behind your eyes, the entity that feels something beyond the cold and calculated material nature of our universe. This phenomena piggybacks onto the hidden circuitry.

There are experiments that show your brain making decisions before you're conscious of even making them. There are experiments that suppress the default mode network, severing the synchronicity between consciousness and subconscious processing (i.e., you watch yourself moving about like your watching a movie, completely out of control of your body).


Our every thought and action are the effect of prior subconscious processing, whether we completely understand that processing is irrelevant. Consciousness is some epiphenomenal effect to this processing. For now the brain is too hyperdimensional for us to identify how it emerges. It exists outside of explainable science; however, free-will does not.

  • What are the grounds or arguments the "consensus" you refer to, that free will does not existt, is based on?The consensus I know is that libertarian free will is coherent and is not disproved by any scientific experiment nor philosophical argument.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 20:47
  • "There are those who say because of quantum mechanics, there's an underlying uncertainty we may never fully be able to predict" why this necessarily reinforces only the compatibilism view and not also the libertarian view?
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 20:51
  • I follow the work of a lot of neuroscientists and philosophers; metaphysical libertarianism is largely dismissed. It flies in the face of physical causality, given an entirely material universe, i.e. our brains included. Metaphysical libertarianism works under the premise: given a scenario one could've had the will to act differently. To reiterate, this premise flies in the face of physical causality, so I would consider it extending beyond hidden quantum variables, whereas compatibilism operates within physical causality, the distinguishing factor placed on an awareness of the subconscious. Commented Jan 25, 2023 at 23:48
  • Many philosophers (about 20% of analytic philosophers and almost all of continental philosophers) do hold the libertarian view on free will. Determinism is a belief, that is way more improbable than libertarian free will and fundamental physics at least undermines it. In any case, the consensus is that libertarian view is both a coherent view and is not in conflict with causality (except determinism) nor any scientific experiment.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jan 26, 2023 at 9:20
  • Laugh out loud. How exactly does the libertarian view not violate physical causality? I simply don't understand this point of view; do you hold some supernatural intervention view? Given we're highly-ordered hydrogen, of which each atom is being defined as physically determinable more and more each day, how can you come to any other conclusion but determinism? I really would like to know. Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 8:28

First we have to define free will. To me free will means the ability to choose what you do, the ability to control your muscles.

Consciousness is more difficult to define, but we could say that consciousness refers to that part of our mental activity that we are aware of. Subconscious activity consists of automated routine skills (like walking or talking) and some maintenance type of activities like cleaning up and reorganising memories and knowledge.

Free will is a property of consciousness, its ability to control the muscles. Consciousness without this ability would be a useless passive observer with no ability to affect the physical reality in any way, with no ability to communicate with other consciousnesses.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .