January 14, 2005

Free will

Rambling thoughts from my train ride home tonight....

It occurred to me that consciousness may be described as the illusory sense one has that they have free will and that they operate in the world as singular decision making agents.

Then in struck me that this is nonsense because if it were the case, and we truly don’t have free will, then consciousness would have never evolved in the first place. In other words, if we are automatons reacting exclusively to environmental stimuli, there would be no need for consciousness. We’d simply be complex reflex organisms.

Clearly we have consciousness, so we need to explain why we evolved consciousness and why we’re not just sentientless reflex organisms. A likely explanation is that consciousness evolved as the result of growing organismal and environmental complexity. At some point in the evolutionary story, ultra-quick decision making in unpredictable situations could not be satisfactorily made by mere automatons. Similarly, as animals grew in complexity, so did their behaviours and their various modes of survival (e.g. social interactions, nest and den construction, etc). Consequently, something more powerful was required than mere “reaction,” and selection for consciousness emerged.

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