Free Will and the Origin of Consciousness

Am I missing something here? If contra-causal free will does not exist–and most non-dualist philosophers and scientists insist that it doesn’t, then how did consciousness ever evolve?

It’s logically possible that we could all be zombies–though we’re not–without the least harm to our survival as a species, running complex behavioral algorithms without being conscious of what we’re doing, as bees and ants and computers do. If free will is an illusion–if what’s really going on in the cosmos is just determinate atoms jostling positions from moment to moment, what’s consciousness doing, but hitching a ride?

From an evolutionary vantage, what could consciousness possibly be for if it has no pre-existing terrain of mind or matter on which to adapt itself, assisting the survival of Homo sapiens? (Perhaps I’m sounding too Platonic here.)

Natural selection needs an environment for its organisms to adapt to. Wings need wind to adapt to, fins water, feet land, eyes light, etc. You don’t evolve wings in a vacuum, or feet absent land, or armor absent war. But what terrain has awareness been adapting to in primates and becoming ever more acute in navigating (especially if, again, we don’t have contra-causal free will)?

Awareness is not adapting to social interaction because, if we have no free will, all our social interactions are being orchestrated by algorithms beneath conscious awareness, prior to conscious acts of will. We become aware of conscious states and desires already worked out beneath awareness.

This is from Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise:

Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.

How did so helpless a creature as DeLillo perfectly captures (that is, all of us) ever reach consciousness? Our bodies and brains, it would seem, are fully capable of making decisions and acting as they do with or without consciousness. Consciousness is an apologist for what matter does, not its conductor. Again, we might just as well be zombies. And yet here we are. Consciousness evolved.

Or perhaps it is a total fluke that consciousness emerged–a fluke of complexity–and it is here absent natural selection, a stunning accident.

But wait. Maybe contra-causal free will is a real phenomenon after all, making the evolution of consciousness more plausible. How is it, for example, that physics deals with mind as a “quantum enigma” that seems to effect the outcome of material experiments (as in the Schrodinger’s Cat-type experiments)? And why do we have what may be the illusion of free will, but which seems for all the world to us like our minds are moving material things around, that we are “wills in the world?”

And, of course, there’s the issue of qualia. How on earth did the inner experience of red evolve? Did such a conscious experience simply jump into existence out of nowhere, or did it slowly evolve? What good is a vague conscious experience of red to an organism if contra-causal free will does not exist; if information can be exchange among chemical reactions without benefit of a mental experience? Why would a configuration of atoms outside the skull meeting a configuration of atoms in the skull give you the conscious experience of red? Did natural selection achieve this slowly, or is it just in the nature of things to pop into existence (as water is consciously experienced from H20 molecules in a particular concentration)?

Again, whence consciousness in a strictly material, non-dual world?

A determinate material universe with a mind popping out of it–any mind at all–is stunning. And a consciousness that is actually not doing anything that impacts the course of living matter, and yet still exists, is more stunning still. The questions raised by it are difficult (to say the least).

Maybe the physicist Andrei Linde is right. According to Discover magazine, Linde is reported to entertain a mind dependent cosmos:

[C]onsciousness may be a fundamental component of the universe, much like space and time. He [Linde] wonders whether the physical universe, its laws, and conscious observers might form an integrated whole. A complete description of reality, he says, could require all three of those components, which he posits emerged simultaneously.

If Linde is correct, what does this mean for our understanding of the evolution of mind in animals? If mind is not a fluke of matter, but something that has always been “in the air” from the beginning with space and time, then the evolution of animals with awareness may be akin to the evolution of land animals and migratory birds. Things that already exist–land, magnetic north, mind–are being discovered and exploited by life.

In other words, just as land-dwelling animals do not create land, and migratory birds do not create magnetic north, perhaps the human brain does not generate mind, but stumbles upon it–taps into it–and so makes use of its existence as a strategy for survival.

Below are two videos: one of Madonna singing “Material Girl” and the other of Marina, of Marina and the Diamonds, singing (apparently ignorantly, if most physicists and biologists are to be believed) “I Am Not a Robot.” If consciousness is not, along with space and time, a “fundamental component of the universe,” and we live in a completely material world and are in fact robots–machines driven by determinate chemical reactions consisting of determinate physical atoms–then how could we have ever evolved awareness?


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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7 Responses to Free Will and the Origin of Consciousness

  1. adambnoel says:

    Here’s a thought I’ve had in relation to this topic (Hopefully the connection will be clear by the end):

    Evolution emerges in any system with causality and evolution is tautologically true. (Successful sub-environments will be more plentiful in environments by definition). For evolution to occur there must be more possible configurations of sub-environments then the current number of sub-environments. (Otherwise the system would be static and there would be no causality). Also, there must exist restricted tendencies for sub-environments to differentiate into other sub-environments otherwise the system would be random. (Random systems also lack causality).

    When we provide a description of how the system evolved we are explaining what degrees of freedom were successful in becoming more plentiful. The degrees of freedom in our universe are incredible hence the wide variety of organisms we see today. What we have with evolution is a description of causal histories. If the causal history for a feature of the universe is incorrect it may be because our basic assumptions in regards to causality are incorrect.

    Now, if our current version of evolutionary theory cannot accommodate the evolution of consciousness I would assume it is because our current version of causality is incorrect. Evolution of consciousness does not make sense in a purely deterministic universe so it is likely, as far as I can tell, that the universe is not purely deterministic.

    I am also skeptical if we can ever describe causality in a non-deterministic fashion. Since all of science is essentially description of what can be described and language limits description by limiting what can be described we may discover limitations on science due to language. Perhaps there will never be a neuroscience of free will because we cannot formulate free will in a fashion that accurately reflects what free will feels like.

    • proximity1 says:

      Events can occur in a probabilistic range of potential outcomes. Past events can lessen or heighten the liklihood of subsequent events without necessarily entirely precluding all except one single following event.

      So, “deterministic” suggests an all-or-nothing aspect to natural occurances. But we needn’t suppose that this is the case. There can be vast possibilities open while all of them are more or less probable in their actual occurances. Evolution describes just that. The bit by bit, piece by piece accumulations of happenstance events can produce outcomes which are not preordained, but can appear to be (appear to us, that is) the result of a prior design’s results when in fact there was no prior design, just a concatenation of events with various probabilistic outcomes.

  2. Pingback: Conscious me | Funjabi Guy's Blog

  3. Alan says:

    Free will is not an illusion after all (article):
    23 September 2009 by Anil Ananthaswamy

    Note the date: 2009. These free-will deniers are simply ignoring the contrary evidence.

  4. proximity1 says:


    It’s logically possible that we could all be zombies–though we’re not–without the least harm to our survival as a species, running complex behavioral algorithms without being conscious of what we’re doing, as bees and ants and computers do. If free will is an illusion–if what’s really going on in the cosmos is just determinate atoms jostling positions from moment to moment, what’s consciousness doing, but hitching a ride?

    If consciousness means anything, if humans are conscious of their behavior, then bees and ants are also conscious of theirs. (See: Karl Von Frisch, Nobel prize laureat author of Aus dem Leben der Bienen

    Our species evolved and, thus, so did consciousness.

    You are very stuck on a false “problem”. If you want to understand these issues and write about them, why don’t you read some science writing on these topics? Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damsio, for example.

  5. proximity1 says:

    “Natural selection needs an environment for its organisms to adapt to.”

    But an environment is a prior given –with or without organisms, let alone natural selection as a process. Before life existed, there was an “environment”–physical world–in which first living organisms and, later, natural selection, might or might not have come about.

    re: “then how could we have ever evolved awareness”

    We “got it” from our species’ predecessor species, who got it from theirs, etc. on a randomly probabilistic course of combinatory events in each of those prior cases but, once established in them, the legacy of consciousness becomes part of the living landscape and is no longer cause for marvelment. The “first” conscious organism(s) was (were) chance occurances of previously existing partial elements which, on combination, produced a change in sensory capacities that we, long after the fact, refer to as consciousness, awareness.

  6. Alan says:

    Our brains are quite wondrous organs which do a lot for us. Three fundamental functions as I see it are managing our sensory systems, managing our instinctive reactions and controlling our musculature systems to include locomotion. The first two of these I can accept as largely deterministic. Our eyes see, our ears hear, our hearts fall in love – all without us doing much of anything to guide or initiate their basic operation.
    Why this would be is that for hundreds of millions of years eyes have been resolving the same nature of light to see by, similar pneumatic vibrations for hearing, similar volatile organic compounds to smell and a consistent driving requirement to select a mate for breeding. Deterministic, genetically programmed solutions are successful when problems are consistent across evolutionary time.
    Navigation, however, is not amenable to this at all. Terrains change minute by minute under some conditions. Techniques for traversing difficult terrains require split second, situationally dependant adjustments. Predators or prey can appear at any moment, may be of many varieties or occupy any one of a variety of vantage points – each of which require unique response techniques. Any beast bread for one habitat (the condition if genetically determined) could not compete effectively in another. Far too many animals are capable of adjusting their locomotion to too many various conditions for that skill to be biologically determined. To be competitive, all their moves must be situationally derived. They require an active, analytical mind. And we haven’t yet gotten past mollusks or crustaceans.
    I think it completely fair to say such creatures act with intention. The first intentions would surly have been to satisfy instincts, but they were likely intentions all the same, not pre-determined reactions. The logic process goes something like this. Brain reads the sense data, reads the instinct data and decides: New situation or Familiar situation. If situation is familiar, decide on locomotion (doing something). 90% of the time or more, brain will start doing whatever was done last time (the situation is familiar – it remembers the last time). But the repose is still probabilistic, not fixed. Most creatures, even when doing something familiar, will make small changes in their execution for no discernable reason.
    When a situation is new, the brain goes into its test and analyze mode – move the head around to get a better look, cautious steps to see if it can walk or climb the surface, make threatening or retreating moves to see if there is any reaction from a shape in the distance.
    As brains evolve larger, the analytical process becomes dramatically more complex. We create imaginary scenarios where we act out alternatives in all manner of potential encounters – with predators or prey, rivals and companions, with potential mates. We are practicing for potential futures, preparing our decisions in advance – just as we do when we go to school or train for a sport. This is a blend (as are most of our brain processes) of biologically determined processes, random and willful choices. Dreams, a subset of these imaginary scenario exercises, appear common to birds and mammals alike. Dreams and the ability to dream is likely an essential component of empathetic behavior and child rearing.

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