AI & Law: Turtles All The Way Down

Lance Eliot
6 min readAug 21, 2021
Famous SCOTUS case made turtles all the way down part of legal lore

by Dr. Lance B. Eliot

For a free podcast of this article, visit this link or find our AI & Law podcast series on Spotify, iTunes, iHeartRadio, plus on other audio services. For the latest trends about AI & Law, visit our website

Key briefing points about this article:

  • A legendary and somewhat unusual expression is that it is “turtles all the way down”
  • This is a reference to the notion of an infinite regress and is based likely on a fable
  • Supreme Court Justice Scalia famously used the expression in a SCOTUS opinion
  • The expression is arising in the AI and LegalTech realm, dubiously so
  • You can use the expression appropriately or use it for intentionally muddled purposes


Attorneys love to make use of clever sayings or catchy expressions. The law is ostensibly about words and their meanings, thus there is an intrinsic fascination by lawyers about how we say things and what we intend to convey.

I’d like to cover one expression that might be unfamiliar to you, or you might vaguely know but have rarely ever used or seen used. I’m referring to the vaunted notion that it might be turtles all the way down.

If you’ve not come across those sage words, you might be a bit bewildered by what it portends.

Let’s take a look.

There are numerous claims of how the expression came to be. The usual backstory is that it came from the earliest efforts to figure out what the earth is composed of. The standard answer at the time was that the earth is made of rocks.

When you pointedly inquired about what is underneath the rocks, the brisk reply was that there are rocks under the rocks. Daring to ask again, you might further inquire what’s underneath the rocks that are underneath the rocks, which the person answering might shrug their shoulders and make a tiresome sigh, and then indicate it is rocks all the way down.

Okay, that explains about rocks, but this abundantly seems to skirt the aspect about the turtles. How did we go from rocks to having turtles in this picture?

Lance Eliot

Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, successful startup founder, global CIO/CTO, , was a top exec at a major Venture Capital (VC) firm.