The idea of “free will” is simply a misconception following from the illusion of pure identity over time, i.e. lack of recognition that we are not exactly the same people we were a moment before. We are all evolving all the time, our neuronal connections are changing, and what we think in any moment is a function of that evolution as prompted both by ongoing chemical changes and by changes induced by input from the external environment. By the time we finish the choice we are a slightly different person from the one who was prompted with the input that leads to the choice. The determinist focuses on the external input to the choice and how it affects the choice and a true believer in “free will” starts with the assumption that the person who finished making the choice is identical to the person before making the choice, before being prompted by the external input that leads to the choice. But it would be a mistake to model it as simple determinism where the input solely determined the choice, as the person at the time of being prompted was a fundamental part of the equation, a very significant participant.
Moreover, the concept became popular and useful during a particular period in the development of human knowledge and related social/cultural development. The elites of many groups, who preferred to keep the non-elites separate and weak, and who wished to portray themselves as capable and deserving of their elite status, developed a philosophy of individualism and free will and they promoted this philosophy among the population. The beauty of this philosophy for the elites is that, as the belief that a “God” had ordained the social order began to wane, it justified the continuation of a hierarchical social order with extreme inequality as it implied that: (1) through their own superior ability, work ethic, and the exercise of their free will, they had risen to the top and deserved their elite status and all the benefits that went along with it; and (2) the non-elites were deserving of their low status because of their own failures and decisions from the exercise of their free will, and it would be inappropriate and useless for them to try to understand the social or economic forces that may have contributed to those failures or to join together to change the social order.