When I was a child I used to tell people that I wanted to be a cosmologist, but they frequently took me to be saying “cosmetologist.” The link between such disparate fields as astrophysics and hairdressing only became clear when I took Greek as a college student and learned that the verb κοσμεῖν means “to arrange.” It applies to the person arranging hair and makeup and to the Demiurge arranging the stars in the heavens. In both cases specific parts are given order in relation to one another in such a way that they form a beautiful whole.

Hence, κόσμος is frequently translated as “arrangement,” and we may gain an insight into the inner logic of this simple word by contrasting arrangements with aggregates. An aggregate is a mere collection of different objects without necessarily involving any relation, ordering, or harmony between them. For example we can consider the set: (i) the eggs I had for breakfast, (ii) the planet Venus, (iii) the Magna Carta, (iv) all the hydrogen in Aldebaran, and (v) the third episode of I Love Lucy. If you work at it, you will certainly be able to find relations and commonalities between these items because it is a truism that all beings are related to one another in some way or other. But such post hoc discoveries will hardly justify this selection as opposed to very many others.

Compare this aggregate with the arrangement of elements in an icon: the eyes, the hand gesture of blessing, the halo, the book of the gospel, the buildings in the background. Each of these elements exists in rich relation to the other elements and together form a coherent composition. The icon is a cosmos.

We can take this a step further by stealing an insight from Aristotle. A part only exists as a part in relation to the whole. Hence, the whole has a certain ontological priority over its parts (insofar as they are parts). The eyes of this icon that I look into only are what they are—the eyes of this icon—set within the arrangement of face and hands and halo. While someone may for some reason paint an exact copy of these eyes by themselves, they would no longer have the same meaning, the same essence. Indeed, it would be hard not to see such isolated eyes as the eyes of a missing face.

Likewise someone who sees the universe as cosmos will see the Sun as existing in meaningful relation to the Earth and the Earth in meaningful relation to the Sun. We can imagine an exact copy of our Sun in a universe by itself, but such a star would no longer be the Sun. Like the eyes, we will surely imagine such a star as the Sun of a missing solar system in exact proportion as we imagine it to be the Sun at all.

So the crucial difference between an arrangement and an aggregate is the order among the elements of the former. This order has a definite ontological status over and above the elements that are ordered. And insofar as the order itself is real and remains at least partly unexplained by the bare elements themselves, the order must have a cause.

A reductionist will tend to jump right to the explanation that the elements in a set can, in principle, be put into a given order by chance. For example suppose I have three Scrabble blocks ‘O,’ ‘G,’ and ‘D.’ I thrown them on the table at random and read roughly from left to right. They happen to read ‘DOG.’—Ah a meaningful word! A message! The reductionist will tend to point out that there are only six possible ordering of these three elements and that two of the six spell words in English. So complete chance leaves us with a rather high one-in-three probability that the pieces will spell a meaningful word. Hence, we need not infer that any guiding hand put the pieces in this order.

While I readily concede that we cannot establish a governing intelligence in all observations of order such as this, I must insist that this line of objection misses the point entirely. In all such cases there still must be an ontological source for the ordering of the Scrabble pieces, even when they do not spell an English word. There must, of course, be an efficient cause for the pieces being there in the first place, being dropped from the hand, and coming to rest in just such a way. Even if this efficient chain of cause and effect were purely random (which it is not), the mechanism of pure randomization itself would be a cause of the ordering that results.

More important than the efficient causes, however, are the set of formal preconditions for such sequence of events—necessary but frequently ignored in such thought experiments: The Scrabble blocks are printed with letters; these letters belong to a set of twenty-six possible letters; some combinations of letters form words in the English language, while others do not; the letters are to be read off roughly left to right; gravity and friction are such that the pieces will come to rest on a flat surface in a mostly stable way.

I leave to the side for the moment the observation that the “Complete Chance Hypothesis” becomes increasingly unlikely as the number of elements and the complexity of the arrangement increases. At the moment, we need only observe that Complete Chance itself can only occur against the background of preexisting structuring conditions.

The Skeptic will surely say, “But the order we currently see in the cosmos arises purely from the meaningless interaction of fundamental particles.” Very well, these interactions are governed by the antecedent laws of physics. “But the laws themselves could be random, merely instantiated in our local universe but variable among an infinite array of alternate universes.” Very well, the arrangement of the laws would then be governed by the antecedent array and variability of universes. “But you still haven’t proven the existence of God.” Very well, I am not here attempting to prove the existence of God, merely the necessity of an ontological source of arrangement, although you are right to fear that this line of thinking may, in the end, subject us all to the possibility of judgment.

With the concepts of both arrangement and source of arrangement in hand we are in a position to clarify the crucial but frequently confused word λόγος and the connection it plays to κόσμος in much of Greek philosophy. The trouble with all introductory discussions of λόγος is that the word can mean so many different things and yet these different meanings are all bound together by a simple core of meaning. While we cannot here explore the full range of these meanings, we may simply note for now that λόγος can mean both the arrangement of elements in relation to one another organized into a whole and the principle or source of this organization.

For example, according to the first sense, we may describe the λόγος of the right triangle with sides measuring three, four, and five. The λόγος is the arrangement of these lengths into a right triangle, and hence, λόγος can frequently be translated as “ratio” or “definition.”

According to the second meaning, we might speak of a seed containing the λόγος of the full grown tree because it preserves within itself the principle of the arrangement which will only come to full fruition later.

This last example provides a potentially useful bridge for the modern imagination. We now know that the λόγος of the full grown tree is encoded by DNA molecules in the seed. Importantly, the DNA λόγος acts as the principle of organization (second sense above) without instantiating the actual arrangement of branches and leaves (first sense). Nevertheless, it “encodes” the necessary “instructions” for building the proteins that will ultimately form these organs into a complete organism. Hence, we might imagine the λόγος of any being as its “DNA,” a kind of inner code accounting for the meaningful arrangement that ultimately comes to fruition.

Thinking of λόγος as the DNA of being also serves to illustrate another important point. While the DNA molecule does not have leaves or branches, it does itself have a complex internal structure. Most importantly, four distinct components (ACGT) are arranged sequentially, and this sequence is just what encodes the “instructions” for building proteins. We appealed to DNA originally as the ontological source for the arrangement of elements in the resultant organism. But does not the DNA itself require a further principle or source according to the same logic since it too is an orderly arrangement of elements? Hence we are involved in a regress—but it need not be a vicious one. The DNA may require a further ordering principle, and this in turn may require another. But this pattern only becomes an endless regress if we hold the principle that every ordering principle must itself be a complex arrangement of elements. This would follow if every ordering principle were a many and not a one. In other words, an infinite regress occurs only so long as we account for order by appealing to a chain of complex λόγοι and discount the possibility of an ultimate, wholly unitary Λόγος.

Every little arrangement, every little κόσμος, then, requires a λόγος, both in the sense of the order of the arrangement itself and in the sense of the principle or source of that order. What then of the All? What if arrangement should prove to be, not merely a feature of the little parts taken separately, but of the Whole? What if the All should prove to be not merely an aggregate of hydrogen and light and gravitational laws, but a Cosmos? In such a case we should look for its Λόγος. We should inquire into the inner logic of its being, the ground and source of its meaningful, intelligible structure. Such an ultimate Λόγος would stand indeed as the final object of inquiry, the fundamental term of thought—at least insofar as our inquiry is bounded by this world and the investigation of its intelligible structure.