Why the Realism Debate Matters for Science Policy: The Case of the Human Brain Project

Jamie Craig Owen Shaw


There has been a great deal of skepticism towards the value of the realism/anti-realism debate. More specifically, many have argued that plausible formulations of realism and anti-realism do not differ substantially in any way (Fine 1986; Stein 1989; Blackburn 2002). In this paper, I argue against this trend by demonstrating how a hypothetical resolution of the debate, through deeper engagement with the historical record, has important implications for our criterion of theory pursuit and science policy. I do this by revisiting Arthur Fine’s ‘small handful’ argument for realism and show how the debate centers on whether continuity (either ontological or structural) should be an indicator for the future fruitfulness of a theory. I then demonstrate how these debates work in practice by considering the case of the Human Brain Project. I close by considering some potential practical considerations of formulating meta-inductions. By doing this, I contribute three insights to the current debate: 1) demonstrate how the realism/anti-realism debate is a substantive debate, 2) connect debates about realism/anti-realism to debates about theory choice and pursuit, and 3) show the practical significance of meta-inductions.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.4245/sponge.v9i1.27760