One of my favorite parts of New Scientist issues are the letters. Not surprisingly, given the readership, the letters typically are intelligent, insightful, and creative.
Below is one from the October 10 issue that grabbed my attention. It just seems like it could be so right, though I'm not sure how anyone could test this hypothesis.
The letter writer suggests that just as the human mind/brain has an inherent tendency to attribute conscious purpose to other people (basically, "theory of mind"), perhaps that same ability to construct a purposeful agent also is applied inwardly -- to one's own mind.
So when we see ourselves acting, thinking, feeling, and so on, instead of attributing this to the unconscious sources of mental activity, the mind/brain tells itself "A conscious agent -- ME -- is in charge."
This added level of self-consciousness, a feeling that "I" am choosing what to do and think, etc., produces a uniquely human awareness of agency.
Which could very well be an illusion. Free will probably doesn't exist in the way we humans believe it does. However, there must be an evolutionary reason why attributing agency to others, and also to ourselves, is part of our makeup.
Here's the New Scientist letter:
Consciousness, illusion and agency
From Ray Thompson
I’m reminded of Graham Lawton’s observation that humans tend to seek “agents” with purpose (4 April, p 28). There is a survival advantage in always being on the lookout for the causes of things that happen around you. Could consciousness be a constructed “agent” explaining one’s own unconscious actions as things that occur in one’s local environment? This construct would provide a valuable interface with other local conscious “constructs” (that is, people), and allow the establishment of social groups.
Lymington, Hampshire, UK