The following is a modified excerpt from an e-mail exchange I had with a theist over the earned position of superiority that material causes have over hypothetical immaterial causes.
Imagine back when there was far less of a precedent for material causation, say around the time of Benjamin Franklin. Imagine the conventional understanding of the phenomenon of lightning. There was no conceivable way that this phenomenon could neatly fit into the existing web of material causation that was at that time quite limited to physical objects within the exploratory reach of humans. Were not humans justified in believing that lighting was caused by a supernatural entity?
It was perhaps not until around the time of Benjamin Franklin that the expectation of wholly material causation was warranted. The precedent for material causation had indeed been strong due to discoveries by Newton and others, but I think I would have been inclined to admit the possibility that the supernatural was still a possible candidate for the explanation of lighting. This might have been reinforced by anecdotes of “sinners” who had been struck by lightning. (In fact, the catholic church had been claiming just a few centuries earlier that the actual type of sin could be ascertained by the location of the strike on the body.) There was also the biblical claim that Satan was the prince of the power of the air, a claim that also lead to the slow adaptation of the radio later on among some Christian communities.
However, through the experiments of Benjamin Franklin (though the key on a string story was almost certainly apocryphal) and others, electromagnetism was slowly teased out as a force that did indeed fit neatly into the web of material causation. This was not an overnight process. It took a host of various scientists contributing candidate theories, then modifying or abandoning those theories until electromagnetism emerged as the coherent theory we know today.
Were the incompatible material theories being debated an indication that a material theory was not forthcoming? No. Could the claims coming from the various camps of scientists have been co-opted by amateurs to claim that the concept of electromagnetism was in disarray and in decline? Yes, and they were.
Today, very few people believe that lighting strikes reflect the wrath of god (unless golfers are the worst sinners), and electromagnetism is a very stable and widely accepted theory.
I’ve chosen the era of Benjamin Franklin because this era appears to be a turning point. For each new inquiry of causation throughout the earlier centuries of science, candidate supernatural cause had been given close to equal weight as candidate natural causes. And many strongly affirmed that it would be a supernatural cause that would be awarded responsibility for the material effect.
However, after innumerable failures of supernatural hypotheses of causation, a precedent naturally emerged around the time of our friend Ben that made science more efficient. Supernatural causation would not be seriously considered as a possible hypothesis.
This is not to say that immaterial causation is impossible, but merely increasingly improbable as methodological naturalism alone continues to expand the explanatory web of coherent explanations that yield predictive power. It warrants our defaulting to an assumption that any unexplained phenomenon will have a material cause. This assumption has been rightfully earned though the centuries of the successes of material hypotheses, and the failures of immaterial hypothesis. We are no longer warranted in expecting a supernatural cause for any given phenomenon, even when in the dark about any possible material mechanism.
If one material hypothesis of causation is refuted, we do not regress to a supernatural hypothesis in the face of precedent. If centuries of incomplete or incongruous material explanations have been offered for a given phenomenon, we wait patiently for a material explanation.
Could it be the audaciousness of amateur scientists. time after time, asserting that the “clear” immaterial nature of a phenomenon demands that we default to a supernatural cause be the reason why many scientists are rather curmudgeonly in their treatment of the immaterial? Induction (precedence) is a fundamental tool in science, and to begin an inquiry by dismissing the inference of history goes completely against the entire project of science.
For a more extensive treatment of this concept that scientists call methodological naturalism, click here.