Living organisms appear to have agency, the ability to act freely, and humans appear to have free will, the ability to rationally decide what to do. However, it is not clear how such properties can be produced by naturalistic processes, and there are indeed neuroscientific measurements that cast doubt on the existence of free will. Here I present a naturalistic theory of agency, consciousness, and free will. Elementary forms of agency evolved very early in the evolution of life, utilizing an extension of the basic Darwinian scheme that combines and entangles deterministic and stochastic causation. The extension effectively produces an active form of causation, as well as meaning intrinsic to the organism. Consciousness arose when animals evolved advanced nervous systems and social lifestyles that enabled communication mutually affecting each animal’s intrinsic meaning. I argue that various forms of agency that subsequently arose in evolution, preconscious, conscious, intelligent, symbolic, and rational agency, still coexist in humans. This coexistence, combined with the fact that agency is not instantaneous but takes time to build up, makes simple interpretations of neuroscientific results on free will (taken here as rational, symbolic agency) problematic. The conclusion of the study is that conscious free will, including a form of agent causation, is fully consistent with a naturalistic world-view and can be produced by the specific processes discussed. The result closely resembles existing approaches to life and mind that are inspired by phenomenology.
- Free will