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The Law Library of Babel: Exploring the Infinite Dimensions of Law and Technology


On a Saturday morning in 2016, I found myself sitting in a brightly lit auditorium in my role as an advisor for the Campbell Law School Law Review unaware that my life would take an unexpected turn. As a representative from Lex Machina, a legal analytics company, took the stage, I had no idea that the journey I was about to embark upon would lead me to the very frontiers of human knowledge and understanding. The platform itself was a marvel, a testament to the incredible power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to transform the way we approach the law. As I watched it process and analyze vast troves of legal documents with breathtaking speed and accuracy, identifying hidden patterns and insights that would have taken teams of human lawyers weeks or months to uncover, I felt a sense of exhilaration and wonder that I had never before experienced in my legal career.


            I could imagine what would come—what did come—with predictive analysis platforms like Lex Machina that could equip attorneys with data-driven insights extracted from historical legal records, facilitating informed decision-making throughout various stages of litigation. They could gain strategic advantages by analyzing historical legal data,  helping them anticipate opposing counsel tactics, assess the likelihood of case outcomes, and refine their arguments for specific judges.


But even in that moment of technological triumph, I could sense that there was something deeper at work, a fundamental shift in the very fabric of our legal universe. The old certainties and hierarchies that had governed the practice of law for centuries were beginning to crumble, giving way to a new reality shaped by the relentless flow of data and the ever-accelerating pace of change. It was as if a veil had been lifted, revealing a hidden dimension of the law that had always been there, but that we had lacked the tools and the imagination to perceive.


As I delved into the labyrinthine world of legal technology, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was grappling with something much larger than just a set of tools and techniques. It was as if I had stumbled upon a hidden chamber in the vast palace of human knowledge, a place where the very foundations of logic and reason seemed to shimmer and shift before my eyes. It seemed like Borges’s infinite library, containing all possible books, arranged in a vast and complex architecture that is at once wondrous and maddening.


Looking for a foundation on which to build my understanding, I sought out the works of the great thinkers of the early twentieth century, the titans of mathematics and philosophy who had first begun to question the bedrock assumptions of their disciplines. Figures like David Hilbert, Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Gottlieb Frege, and Ludwig Wittgenstein had set out to build a grand edifice of logic and meaning, only to find that the ground beneath their feet was far less solid than they had imagined. In their quest for certainty and rigor, these thinkers had stumbled upon paradoxes and contradictions that threatened to undermine the very foundations of mathematics itself. The discovery of set-theoretic paradoxes, like Russell’s paradox of the set of all sets that do not contain themselves, had sent shockwaves through the intellectual world, casting doubt on the consistency and completeness of even the most basic mathematical systems. And, Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems that demonstrate that any sufficiently complex formal system of mathematics will contain statements that are true but cannot be proven within that system. This fundamentally altered their understanding of mathematics, indicating that there are inherent limits to what can be definitively proven. Even as these thinkers grappled with the implications of their discoveries, they found themselves drawn deeper into a world of mystery and wonder. For the more they sought to pin down the nature of logic and meaning, the more elusive and paradoxical it seemed to become. It was as if they had stumbled upon a magic lamp, only to find that the genie inside was more powerful and unpredictable than they could ever have imagined.


Mathematics would provide no foundation. Yet it  still was magical. It was the field of pioneers like Claude Shannon and Alan Turing, two towering figures whose work revolutionized our understanding of communication, computation, and the very nature of information itself. Shannon’s groundbreaking work on information theory introduced the concept of entropy as a measure of uncertainty in a message, drawing a powerful analogy between the flow of information and the laws of thermodynamics. It was a connection that had profound implications not just for communication engineering, but for our understanding of the fundamental principles that govern the universe itself. Perhaps empirical sciences, especially physics would provide the foundations to clarify the mysteries that plagued me. But, what do these mathematical formula represent?


I grappled with these ideas, eventually finding myself drawn to the work of Norbert Wiener, the brilliant mathematician and philosopher who had coined the term “cybernetics” to describe the study of the structures of communication and control in machines and living organisms. Wiener’s vision of a world in which feedback loops and information processing played a central role in the functioning of all systems, from the biological to the social, influenced my understanding of the interconnectedness of knowledge and the importance of interdisciplinary thinking. It was a vision that also influenced Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist whose structuralist approach to the study of culture and society revolutionized the field of anthropology. Lévi-Strauss drew heavily on the concepts of cybernetics and information theory in his analysis of the deep structures that underlie human thought and behavior, arguing that the human mind itself could be understood as a kind of information processing machine.


This idea of the mind as a computational engine seemed appealing, It was one that had also captured the imagination of Neal Stephenson in his novel Cryptonomicon, which I read at around that time. Stephenson’s tale wove together the threads of mathematics, cryptography, and the history of computing in a sprawling, multi-layered narrative that had left a deep impression on me. His vision of a world in which information was the ultimate currency, and in which the power to control and manipulate that information was the key to shaping the future, seemed to resonate with the insights of thinkers like Shannon, Turing, Wiener and Lévi-Straus. As I reflected on these ideas, I found myself returning again and again to the words of the anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, who argued that law was not simply a set of rules or principles, but a way of imagining the real. In a world increasingly shaped by the flow of information and the power of algorithms, it seemed to me that the legal imagination would need to evolve in profound ways to keep pace with the changing nature of reality itself. This realization led me to begin exploring the emerging field of legal informatics, which sought to apply the tools and methods of information science to the study and practice of law. It was a field that was still in its infancy, but one that held enormous promise for unlocking new insights into the complex interplay of law, technology, and society.


Now, it seemed, I was making progress. I traced the ripple effects of the foundational crisis of mathematics through the decades that followed, I saw how it had shaped the course of intellectual history in profound and often unexpected ways. By representing the structures of reality, foundations could be validated for coherence. This seemed promising.  I learned of the Vienna Circle’s attempt to build a “unified science” on the basis of logical positivism. This was the dream of Rudolph Carnap: to create a formal language that could capture the logical structure of the world in its grammar and syntax. All of these were in some sense responses to the challenges posed by the foundational crisis, attempts to find a new basis for knowledge in a world where the old certainties had crumbled away.


This seemed to be a light of clarity for understanding legal technology! If formal languages, like Carnap imagined, could be used to capture legal reasoning, then computational law would have a clear and certain foundation! This met the world I witnessed evolving around me. Computational contracts, rule-based systems to represent laws as a set of rules, could make law relatively easy to understand! Legal programs were using languages like Prolog to express the law as logical statements, and law could be tagged with keywords to create what the law librarians were calling “ontologies” of legal knowledge that define and structure legal concepts and their relationships, creating formalized knowledge bases. Lawyers were using tech to tackle legal complexity.  Computational contracts turn agreements into code, enabling clear and automatic execution.  Rule-based systems analyze situations and suggest legal options, promoting consistent decision-making. Legal ontologies promised a structured vocabulary and framework for representing legal concepts, making the law more machine-readable. These tools claim to make law more understandable and interoperable. They make claims like Carnap, who also hoped to remove the ambiguity and subjectivity of natural language through formalization. Perhaps Carnap’s attempts to formalize language showed the way forward!


But, then, alas, I read of the fate of logical positivism, and again my heart faded. There would be no foundation for knowledge here as well. Two towering figures had brought it to a halt: Kurt Gödel, the mathematician and friend to Einstein, and Willard van Ormand Quine, the dean of American philosophy for half a century. Gödel developed a precise and cutting analysis of logical systems like the one that Carnap sought to create. And in his two “incompleteness theorems” he demonstrated that in any sufficiently expressive formal system (e.g., one capable of arithmetic), there will always be true statements that cannot be proven within that system. It exposed inherent limitations of purely axiomatic, formal approaches. This implies that no matter how sophisticated a formalization of law is, there will always be legal propositions or interpretations that fall outside its deductive capabilities. It suggests that a formal legal system will  always require human input and  oversight beyond pure computation.


Quine, a longtime friend and correspondent with Carnap, advanced a radical critique of the foundational syntax of Carnap’s formal language, which undermined the idea of a sharp boundary between empirical fact and logical necessity, and opened up new vistas of uncertainty. Quine’s approach viewed knowledge as webs of signification.


I traced these ideas forward into the realms of jurisprudence and legal theory, I saw how they had shaped the course of twentieth-century legal thought in profound and often counterintuitive ways. The naturalized epistemology of Quine and Brian Leiter, which sought to ground legal reasoning in the methods and findings of empirical science, was in some sense an attempt to find a new foundation for law in the wake of the foundational crisis. And yet, even as these thinkers sought to build a more rigorous and scientific approach to legal theory, they found themselves grappling with the same paradoxes and mysteries that had haunted the thinkers of the early twentieth century. For if the law was indeed a mirror of the deepest structures of reality, then any attempt to reduce it to a set of logical rules or empirical facts was ultimately doomed to incompleteness.


In the midst of this swirling vortex of ideas and intuitions, I began to glimpse the true power and potential of legal technology. For if the foundational crisis had taught us anything, it was that the world was far more complex and mysterious than any logical system or formal language could ever hope to capture. And yet, at the same time, it was precisely this complexity and mystery that gave rise to the incredible richness and diversity of human experience, the endless possibilities for creativity and innovation that made the law such a vital and dynamic force in the world. And so, in the end, the law was not just a set of rules or procedures, but a living, breathing, evolving expression of the deepest values and aspirations of the human spirit. And if we could harness the power of technology to serve those values and aspirations, to create new tools and platforms that empowered people to participate more fully in the process of justice, then we would be fulfilling the true promise of the legal profession.


But even as I threw myself into this new endeavor with all the passion and energy I could muster, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still only scratching the surface of a much deeper truth. The more I learned about the cutting-edge developments in fields like machine learning, natural language processing, and knowledge representation, the more I realized that the traditional tools and methods of legal analysis were woefully inadequate to the task of making sense of this brave new world. I learned that machine learning can analyze historical case data to predict the likely outcomes of new legal cases, considering factors like legal issues, precedent, and history. And, natural language processing (NLP) can automate the classification of legal documents (contracts, briefs, etc.) and extracts key information like dates, entities, and legal provisions. But, at what cost? What insights into law and language were revealed by these developments?


Striving for more insights, I explored the work of philosophers like Edmund Husserl, and his students, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, whose radical critiques of Western metaphysics and language had shaken the foundations of modern thought. Heidegger’s notion of “being-in-the-world,” with its emphasis on the primacy of lived experience and the inextricable entanglement of subject and object, seemed to offer a way out of the dualistic thinking that had long dominated legal theory. And Derrida's concept of “différance, with its playful deconstruction of the binary oppositions that structure our language and thought, opened up new possibilities for understanding the law as a fluid and dynamic system, always in the process of becoming.


As I grappled with these ideas, I found myself exploring the work of contemporary feminist thinkers like Karen Barad and Rosi Braidotti, whose “new materialist” philosophies sought to bridge the gap between the natural and the social sciences, the human and the nonhuman. Barad's notion of “agential realism,” with its emphasis on the inseparability of matter and meaning, challenged me to think in new ways about the relationship between law and the material world. And Braidotti's vision of a “posthuman” future, in which the boundaries between the human and the technological become increasingly blurred, seemed to offer a glimpse of a new kind of legal order, one in which the old distinctions between mind and body, reason and emotion, fact and value, were giving way to a more fluid and dynamic understanding of the world.


As I delved deeper into this new intellectual landscape, I began to see connections and resonances that I had never noticed before. The insights of quantum physics, with its strange and paradoxical world of entanglement and uncertainty, seemed to echo the insights of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, with their emphasis on the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. Luhmann’s concept of “autopoiesis” (self-organization), which had emerged from Francisco Varela’s study of living systems, seemed to offer a new way of understanding the dynamics of legal systems, with their complex feedback loops and emergent properties.


As I continued my journey through the rich and nuanced landscape of legal technology, I found myself increasingly drawn to the work of contemporary philosophers who were grappling with the deep implications of the information age for our understanding of knowledge, reality, and the human condition. Chief among these was Luciano Floridi, whose groundbreaking work in the philosophy of information had opened up new vistas of insight and understanding. Floridi’s vision of the world as a complex web of informational structures and processes resonated deeply with my own experiences in the realm of legal technology, where the flow of data and the processing of information were rapidly becoming the key drivers of innovation and change. But it was not just Floridi’s technical insights that captured my imagination. It was also his profound ethical and humanistic vision, his belief that the information age presented us with both incredible opportunities and daunting challenges for the future of human knowledge and flourishing. In a world where the boundaries between the virtual and the real were becoming increasingly blurred, Floridi argued, we needed to develop new ways of thinking about the nature of the self, the value of privacy, and the meaning of intellectual property.


Alongside Floridi, I found myself deeply influenced by the work of James Ladyman and his collaborator Don Ross, whose structural realist approach to the philosophy of science seemed to offer a powerful new framework for understanding the nature of scientific knowledge in the age of big data and complex systems. Ladyman’s and Ross’s magnum opus, Everything Must Go, was a tour de force of philosophical argumentation, a sweeping critique of the traditional metaphysical assumptions that had long dominated Western thought. In place of the old dichotomies between mind and matter, subject and object, they proposed a new vision of reality as a vast and interconnected web of mathematical structures and informational processes. For Ladyman and Ross, the task of science was not to uncover the hidden essence or intrinsic nature of things, but rather to map out the complex patterns of relations and dependencies that gave rise to the observable phenomena of the world. And in this view, the traditional boundaries between fields like physics, chemistry, biology, and even the social sciences began to dissolve, revealing a deeper unity and interconnectedness that had long been obscured by the silos of academic specialization.


As I reflected on these ideas, I began to see how they might transform our understanding of the law and legal reasoning itself. If the world was indeed a vast and interconnected web of informational structures, as Floridi and Ladyman suggested, then the law could no longer be seen as a static set of rules or principles, but rather as a dynamic and evolving system that was constantly processing and responding to new flows of data and information. And if the task of science was to map out the complex patterns of relations and dependencies that gave rise to the observable phenomena of the world, then the task of legal reasoning must be to map out the complex patterns of rights, obligations, and liabilities that gave rise to the social phenomena of justice and fairness.


In this view, the power of legal technology lay not just in its ability to automate or streamline the tasks of legal analysis and prediction, but in its ability to help us navigate the vast and complex informational landscape of the law itself. By using tools like machine learning, natural language processing, and network analysis, we could begin to uncover the deep structures and patterns that underlie the surface complexity of legal doctrine and precedent. And in doing so, we could begin to develop a new kind of legal reasoning, one that was more responsive to the dynamic and evolving nature of the social world, more attuned to the complex interdependencies and feedback loops that shape the behavior of individuals and institutions alike.


Of course, as with any powerful new technology, the rise of legal informatics also posed daunting challenges and risks. As Floridi himself had warned, the proliferation of digital information and the increasing power of algorithmic decision-making raised profound questions about the nature of privacy, autonomy, and human agency in the age of big data. For a moment, I felt like I was standing on the edge of a new frontier, a vast and uncharted territory that stretched out before me in every direction. And though I knew that the journey ahead would be long and difficult, full of twists and turns and unexpected obstacles, I also knew that I had no choice but to keep pushing forward, to keep exploring the boundaries of the possible and the impossible, the known and the unknown. For in the end, the quest for a new understanding of law and reality was not just an intellectual exercise, a game of abstraction and theory. It was a deeply personal journey, a search for meaning and purpose in a world that often seemed chaotic and indifferent, a world in which the old certainties and verities were crumbling away, leaving us to confront the raw and unmediated mystery of existence itself.


And so, I continue to press forward, guided by the conviction that in the mysterious depths of computational law and legal informatics, there lie secrets and wonders yet to be discovered, insights that could transform not only the law, but the very fabric of human society. It is a journey that has taken me from the heights of philosophical speculation to the cutting edge of technological innovation, and one that I know will continue to unfold in strange and unpredictable ways in the years to come. But I am sustained by the knowledge that I am not alone on this path, that there are others who share my fascination and my commitment, and who are working tirelessly to bring about a future in which the law is a powerful instrument of social justice and human flourishing. Together, we press on into the unknown, driven by a shared sense of purpose and a deep faith in the transformative power of human reason and creativity.


As I reflect on my journey through the infinite halls of this Library of Legal Babel, I am struck by the realization that, like the eternal traveler in Borges’ story, I am destined to wander forever through its labyrinthine depths. The secrets and wonders that lie hidden within its shelves are not meant to be fully grasped or possessed, but rather to be continually sought and marveled at, in a never-ending cycle of discovery and revelation. And yet, far from being a source of despair or frustration, this realization fills me with a sense of profound hope and purpose. For just as the traveler’s solitude is gladdened by the elegant hope of the Library’s underlying Order, so too am I sustained by the conviction that, beneath the seeming chaos and complexity of the legal-informational landscape, there lies a deeper pattern and meaning waiting to be uncovered. It is this hope that drives me forward, even as the path ahead stretches out into the unknown.


Like the explorers and adventurers of old, I am drawn onward by the lure of the horizon, the promise of new vistas and uncharted territories waiting to be mapped and understood. And though I know that the journey will be long and arduous, filled with twists and turns and unexpected challenges, I am comforted by the knowledge that I am part of a larger community of seekers and dreamers, all striving to push the boundaries of what is possible and to build a better, more just world. In the end, then, my wanderings through the Library of Legal Babel are not a solitary quest, but a shared endeavor, a collaborative effort to shine the light of reason and understanding into the darkest and most obscure corners of the legal universe. It is a task that will require all of our creativity, ingenuity, and determination, but one that holds the promise of unlocking a new era of justice and flourishing for all humanity.


And so, like Borges’ eternal traveler, I press on, forever seeking, forever learning, forever marveling at the wonders and mysteries that lie waiting to be discovered in the infinite stacks of the Library. It is a journey that has no end, but one that is all the more glorious and worthwhile because of it. For in the end, the true measure of our success will not be the destination we reach, but the knowledge and wisdom we gather along the way, and the lives we touch and transform through our ceaseless pursuit of truth and justice.


Reading List


Here are some books to stimulate conversation and raise questions. I have tried to avoid overly technical books, either philosophically or technologically.


Philosophy of Mathematics:

1. Doxiadis, Apostolos, and Christos Papadimitriou. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. Bloomsbury, 2009.

2. Sigmund, Karl. Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Question for the Foundations of Science. Basic Books, 2017.

Information and Computation:

3. Gleick, James. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. Vintage, 2012.

4. Bernhardt, Chris. Turing’s Vision: The Birth of Computer Science. MIT Press, 2016.

Cybernetics and Structuralism:

5. Geoghegan, Bernard Dionysius. Code: From Information Theory to French Theory. Duke University Press Books, 2022.

Anthropology

6. Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books, 2017.

Logical Positivism:

7. Sigmund, Karl. Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science. Basic Books, 2017.

8. Leiter, Brian. Naturalizing Jurisprudence: Essays on American Legal Realism and Naturalism in Legal Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Phenomenology:

9. Zahavi, Dan. Phenomenology: The Basics. Routledge, 2018.

10. Dreyfus, Hubert L. Skillful Coping: Essays on the Phenomenology of Everyday Perception and Action. Oxford University Press, 2014.

11. Clark, Andy. Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford University Press, 2003.

New Materialisms:

12. Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost, editors. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Duke University Press Books, 2010.

13. Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Half-way: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press Books, 2007.

14. Braidotti, Rosi. Posthuman Feminism. Polity, 2022.

Eastern Thought:

15. Siderits, Mark, Evan Thompson, and Dan Zahavi, editors. Self, No Self?: Perspectives from Analytical, Phenomenological, and Indian Traditions. Oxford University Press, 2013.

16. Hinton, David. Existence: A Story. Shambhala, 2016.

Philosophy of Information:

17. Floridi, Luciano. Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010.

18. Floridi, Luciano. The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Metaphysics:

19. Ladyman, James, and Don Ross. Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized. Clarendon Press, 2007.

Complexity:

20. Mitchell, Melanie. Complexity: A Guided Tour. Oxford University Press, 2009.

21. Parisi, Giorgio. In a Flight of Starlings: The Wonders of Complex Systems. Penguin Press, 2023.

Fiction:

22. Stephenson, Neal. Cryptonomicon. William Morrow Press, 2009.

23. Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings. New Directions, 1962.

24. Chiang, Ted. Exaltation: Stories. Vintage, 2019.

25. Robinson, Kim Stanley. Aurora. Orbit Press, 2015.

26. Goldstein, Rebecca. Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. W. W. Norton & Co., 2005.


Kevin P. Lee is a Professor of Law at North Carolina Central University, known for his insights into the philosophical and social implications of law and technology. His research seeks to unravel the intricate relationships between legal frameworks, artificial intelligence, and societal values. His academic expertise spans jurisprudence, AI ethics, and law, positioning him as a pioneer in examining how cutting-edge technologies alter legal norms and human rights.


Beyond the classroom, Professor Lee plays a pivotal role in shaping policies and advocating for social justice and equity. As the Intel Social Justice and Racial Equity Professor of Law, he works to foster inclusivity within legal education and the profession, championing a legal landscape that mirrors the diversity of the community it represents. His scholarship weaves together in-depth philosophical knowledge with a passionate appeal for leveraging technology to bolster human dignity and societal welfare. His innovative courses and public lectures emphasize the transformative power of education in engaging with contemporary challenges and opportunities.


Professor Lee is most known for his intellectual rigor, ethical integrity, and visionary outlook. He is a leading authority in discussions on the future of law, technology, and social equity. His dynamic teaching approach and scholarly work inspire future legal minds to pursue their careers with purpose, integrity, and a commitment to societal good.


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