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.