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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What is law? - part 12

Previously : what is law? - part 11

There are a few odds and ends that I would like to bundle up before proceeding. These are items that have occurred to me since I wrote the first What is Law? post back in March. Items I would have written about earlier in this series, if they had occurred to me. Since I am writing this series as I go, this sort of thing is inevitable I guess. Perhaps if I revisit the material to turn it into an essay at some point, I will fold this new material in at the appropriate places.

Firstly, in the discussion about the complexity of the amendatory cycle in legislation I neglected to mention that it is also possible for a new item of primary legislation to contain amendments to itself. In other words it may be that as soon as a bill becomes and act and is in force, it is immediately necessary to modify it using modifications spelled out in the act itself. Looking at it another way, a single Act can be both a container for new law and a container for amendatory instructions, all in one legal artifact. Why does this happen? Legislation can be crafted over long periods of time and consensus building may proceed piece by piece. In a large piece of legislation, rather than continually amending the whole thing – perhaps thousands of pages – sometimes amendments are treated as additional material tacked on the end so as to avoid re-opening debate – and editorial work - on material already processed through the legislative process. It is a bit of a mind bender. Basically if an Act becomes law at time T then it may instantaneously need to be codified in itself before we can proceed to codify it into the broader corpus.

Secondly, I mentioned that there is no central authority that controls the production of law. This complicates matters for sure but it also has some significant benefits that I would like to touch on briefly as the benefits are significant. Perhaps the biggest benefit of the de-centralized nature of law making is that it does not have a single point of failure. In this respect, it is reminiscent of the distributed packet routing protocol used on the internet. Various parts of the whole system are autonomic resulting in an overall system that is very resilient as there is no easy way to interrupt the entire process.

This distribution-based resilience also extends into the semantic realm where it combine with the textual nature of law to yield a system that is resilient to the presence of errors. Mistakes happen. For example, a law might be passed that requires train passengers to be packaged in wooden crates. (Yes, this happened.). Two laws might be passed in parallel that contradict each other (yes, this has happened many times.) When this sort of thing happens, the law has a way of rectifying itself, leveraging the “common sense” you can get with human decision making. Humans can make logical errors but they have a wonderful ability to process contradictory information in order to fix up inconsistent logic. Also humans possess an inherent, individual interpretation of equity/fairness/justice and the system of law incorporates that, allowing all participants to evaluate the same material in different ways.

Thirdly, I would like to return briefly to the main distinction I see between legal deductive logic and the deductive logic computer science people are more familiar with. When deductive logic is being used (remembering always that it is just one form of legal reasoning and rarely used on its own) in law, the classic “if this then that” form can be identified as well as classical syllogistic logic. However, legal reasoning involves weighing up the various applicable deductive statements using the same sort of dialectic/debate-centric reasoning mentioned earlier. Put another way, deductive logic in law very rarely proceeds from facts to conclusion in some nice tidy decision tree. Given the set of relevant facts (which have themselves to be argued as “the relevant facts”) there may well be multiple applicable deductive logic forms in the corpus of law which, depending on which ones are used and the order they are used, will result in different conclusions.

Again, this is where the real skills of a lawyer manifest. The possible routes through the law at Time T, that can be applied to a set of relevant facts F, is often vast and grows exponentially with the complexity of the facts being considered. Lawyers develop the ability to “prune” the routes down to something manageable in the same way that, say, chess grand masters, prune the set of options in any chess game situation.

This is perhaps the biggest "oops" moment I have seen when IT people first see the “rules” expressed in legal language. They see stuff that looks like it can be turned into classical logic e.g. indicative mood statements and then proceed to the non sequitur that it can be re-expressed in classical mathematical logic forms. What computer science people tend not to see at first is the rhetorical structure that sits underneath the indicative statements. I don't think it is overstating the case to say that every legal question is essentially a debate. You can analyse the corpus to find in favour of any given proposition or against any given proposition. Each line of reasoning can feature chunks of good old fashioned mathematical logic but the final conclusions do not come from the decision trees, they come from the fuzzier process of weighing up the logic on every side of the debate, in order to arrive at a best – but necessarily tentative – answer. As Immanual Kant said, there are no rules for the application of rules.

Nick Szabo (the man who coined the term “smart contracts” which we will be turning to soon), uses the terms “wet code” and “dry code” to describe the difference between legal reasoning and classical computer reasoning. Dry code is the stuff with low representational complexity we can convert into classical computer software. There is some of that in law for sure, but a lot less than you might think. Most of it is “wet code” because of the open textured nature of the text of the law, the unbounded opinion requirement, the extensive use of analogical reasoning and the dialectic nature of the deductive logic in law.