The main idea announced in chapter 1 of Sri Aurobindo's The Life Divine is that "Nature seeks a harmony" (p. 4). This presupposes the possibility of an apparent duplicity of seemingly opposite principles, and the potential for their reconciliation.
The apparent duplicity is first introduced as that of Matter and Spirit, both conceived of as ranges of phenomena (Matter includes somehow Life, while Spirit includes Mind).
To bridge these opposites, one can think of an 'evolution' moving from one to the other, but this idea is immediately qualified:
evolution is a word which merely states the phenomenon without explaining it. For there seems to be no reason why Life should evolve out of material elements or Mind out of living form, unless we accept the Vedantic solution that Life is already involved in Matter and Mind in Life because in essence Matter is a form of veiled Life, Life a form of veiled Consciousness. (Ch 1, p. 5)
In this sense, what is realized at a later stage in the process of evolution is nothing but the explication, expression, manifestation, of something that was already entailed in a latent or veiled form:
if evolution is the progressive manifestation by Nature of that which slept or worked in her, involved, it is also the overt realisation of that which she secretly is. (Ch 1, p. 6)
We start from the appearing of a duality, an opposition, even a contradiction. The challenge is to see how this can be recomposed in a synthesis. What Sri Aurobindo calls 'evolution' is thus something that has little to do with the Darwinian ideal of 'evolution of the species' and more to do with Hegel's dialectics. It is a process of reconciliation that sees it as a process of progressive integration.
But, if the ultimate point is a state of complete unity-within-diversity, then shouldn't the processual nature of evolution also be abandoned at some point? Shouldn't it also be considered as a relatively inadequate way of approximating what (in itself) is already unified and harmonized? In other words, is the processual appearance of evolution just a misleading appearance, or does it reveal something more fundamental of the nature of the Absolute? Maybe we'll find and answer to these questions later on in the book...
Chapter 2 begins to explore the two extreme views that try to solve the apparent contradiction of experience by abolishing their opposite. The materialist denies the reality of Spirit, while the ascetic denies the reality of Matter. Chapter 2 focuses on the first option.
From a methodological point of view, Sri Aurobindo remarks that in order to find harmony, it is necessary to appreciate the intermediate degrees that link the opposite poles, and yet it might be fruitful to start engaging with the extremes themselves. As these are more one-sided, their limitations can become more easily apparent, and hence it can become easier to progress towards the rest of the spectrum.
Materialism is presented as the view that denies anything that escapes the range of the physical senses. In today's philosophy it might also be called 'naturalism'. This is also associated with modern science and technology and their ability to know and manipulate physical reality.
Sri Aurobindo does not present a direct refutation of this view, but rather nuances it:
Modern scientific materialism seems to entail a form of agnosticism concerning any ultimate principle, and in this respect it expresses something that is also acknowledged by spiritual seekers, as they realize that THAT (the ultimate) is indeed beyond mind and speech, unknowable by these means (pp. 14-15).
Modern science tends to a form of monism, in which different expressions of reality (including energy and life) are seen on a continuum, which is a view leading to integrating multiplicity within unity.
Technological advancements enhance human power over Matter, but they leave it open other domains above it.
The general point seems that materialism is simply incomplete, that experience is irreducible to what can be explained by sheer material forces. In trying to bind itself to a rigorous empirical method, materialism endorses a false reductionist premise:
A premiss so arbitrary pronounces on itself its own sentence of insufficiency. It can only be maintained by ignoring or explaining away all that vast field of evidence and experience which contradicts it, denying or disparaging noble and useful faculties, active consciously or obscurely or at worst latent in all human beings, and refusing to investigate supraphysical phenomena except as manifested in relation to matter and its movements and conceived as a subordinate activity of material forces. (Ch. 2, p. 12)
Sri Aurobindo objects thus only to the reductionist aspect of materialism, by opposing to the methodological shunning of any immaterial phenomenon the fact that such phenomena are indeed part of the spectrum of experience (hence he provides an empirical refutation). For the rest, materialism can be a healthy preparation for a broader exploration, insofar as it grounds the mind 'on earth' (p. 14) and some of its developments point to an attempt at integrating diversity within unity (the problem of 'harmony' mentioned in ch. 1).
A few questions emerged during the reading group:
what is the role of rationality in Sri Aurobindo's thought?
Is there a form of teleology in the way in which evolution works?
What are the European sources of his thought (maybe influences from European Orientalism, and/or theosophy)? And how do these sources play in relation to his political thought and goals?
The claim that human life can be perfected is backed up with evidence in the Vedas but also by appealing to an alleged direct experience that everybody can have. Do we really have this experience? What if we don't? What is the role of this assumption in the overall argument?