Home / Testimonies / C. Riley Nelson

The world is a diverse place and I find my place in it in diverse ways, using a diversity of discovery tools. My earliest memory combined the evidence of science with the spiritual yearnings of the soul. I clearly remember seeking the material, tactile and sensory, feel of warm green grass on my three-year-old face as I lay with my plastic and stick hobbyhorse on the lawn. The exact material touch of the grass and the faithful love of my constructed horse were both part of my personal reality and form an eidetic image that guides me still. Of course neither the conventions of materialist science nor the structure of religious thought had directly taught me or influenced my feelings that day. Thinking back, I can now see that I had used them in tandem. I have changed little since. I have added more discovery tools through the years to that original simple “materialism” and “spiritualism” I experienced that day, in what is the earliest concrete memory I have. Perhaps these added tools have merely been a subdivision of the first two as I have come to use faith and inspiration; science and materialism; force and compulsion; consensus and social agreement; and art and personal creation to help me better understand the world and universe in which I live and move.

I use faith as a discovery tool. I believe in the reality of a personal God, my spiritual father, who communicates with me and I with him. I also believe in the grace and mission of my older brother, Jesus Christ, and the atoning power he provides to help me be a better person now and forever. I believe Jesus Christ’s gospel has been clearly restored to the earth, essentially as it was in the apostolic age. I see this in the organized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and accept this church with all the parts it entails, including visions, revelations, the role of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, covenants, ordinances, and priesthood authority in current leaders. I believe these things from a spiritual depth I cannot fully and materially explain. I believe in personal and social revelation, inspiration from God. These are concrete beliefs, not to be taken lightly. I have learned them in the quiet of my room, on the tops of mountains, along tumbling streams, in considering the detail of flies and flowers, in teaching moments with others, and in rapt attention in temples around the world. I hope and trust in God in faith. I believe.

Using science as a discovery tool I know something of the diversity of living and non-living things that surround me. I know of their reality by seeing, touching, hearing, tasting, and smelling them. I know also of their reality by virtue of machines which magnify, clarify, and record each of these senses I use to make observations of material reality. I combine induction, deduction, and hypothesis to know of the world, living and nonliving, human and otherwise, that surround me. I have seen the crayfish walk to food and away from my hand. I knew the crayfish. I touched the wind with my face and watched it bend the bunchgrass. I knew of the wind and bunchgrass. I smashed pennies on railroad tracks and knew the weight of the train and know the power of the engine. I use the word “know” quite carefully, generally, but realize that it has a diversity of meanings. I generally restrict “to know” to mean to materially sense something. But I would not be entirely honest if I didn’t acknowledge that sensing, believing, feeling, and knowing are intertwined in ways I will continue to explore at least until I am dead. I believe and know with science.

These two discovery tools, faith and science, are the primary methods I use on a day-to-day basis. I “know” of some things that I “sense” without understanding well from whence comes this “knowing”. Yet the reality of these “feelings” is part of the discoveries I make each day and have made each day of my life. I add to these more tools: force, consensus, and art, to round out my ways of knowing.

Using force, or compulsion, as a discovery tool I submitted as a child to the wishes of my parents Aileen and Winston Nelson and “knew” the right things to do as I grew up. I learned my multiplication tables under the forceful tutelage of a loving Mrs. Sewell in my third grade class at Lincoln Elementary School in Brigham City, Utah. I was “forced” and guided to learn and do good things. I also “knew” that taking the neon tetra fish from the tank at Taylor’s pet store in Ogden, Utah, and putting it in my pocket, was wrong. I knew this through social norms and also through it becoming a dead lint covered fuzz ball in my pocket in a relatively short time. I still buy seeds from the Taylor family most years as my self-enforced penance for that shameful act at age five.

I was forced to learn a myriad of wonderful things in school from elementary to college. I am grateful for what I was forced to learn. Sometimes I rebelled and resisted but more often than not was to able to learn more with that guidance. I am sure some of what I was forced to learn was not true and valuable, but I endured the “force” to gain knowledge. And now I “force” others to learn in the same way. I force, or the university forces, students like I once was to learn of biology in a required curriculum. I am also “forced” to pay my taxes. I welcome the chance that gives me to use the roads, build the bridges, and help the homeless without needing to think deeply of such things each day. I have been “forced” to learn and work, and am grateful for knowledge thus obtained. Of course I realize I could rebel against such force and authority. I have that choice. But I assent to much. I choose to change what I can or ignore what I can’t. Force has a place in my discovery toolbox.

I can know things from a consensus of a group. I can help know who the leaders of the nation are to be by voting, which provides a balanced consensus. With other citizens we can discover a majority opinion of some sort, to get answers to such questions as, “Who should our leader be?” I never agree with all the opinions of all the leaders nor most certainly do I agree with all of the citizens all the time. Some of those leaders and those citizens participating in this consensus are clearly nuts or evil or uninformed or power hungry or worse. Yet I submit to the “knowing” of who is to be the leader using the discovery tool of consensus.

We sometimes gain this consensus “knowledge” by either peaceful or radical means: by debate, competition, war, public demonstration, and sports. Perhaps by voting more often in the sports stadium or in the theater of war for who the winner would be we could save time, injury, and lives. But would that be as effective, fun, entertaining, or binding? Would it be as effective a learning experience? Consensus is somehow related to force as we bind ourselves in society. I keep exploring this consensus discovery tool, sometimes rather nonchalantly.

I have learned through art. I “know” through this medium. My soul has been moved by the creations of human hands, hearts, and minds. I have thrilled at the gradients of colors spread carefully on canvas. I have learned of myself by seeing a fluid dancer run and jump across a stage or perform on a busy street corner. I have heard music that moves me in pleasant and unpleasant ways. My soul has rejoiced at times and has been appalled at others while the ideas that words on a page carry feelings into my being. I know through art. From my earliest experience of grass on my face, I have put a priority on realism and I continue to this day to value it most, I think. My own artwork with photography is an attempt to capture the reality of the moment. Yet I have recognized that all is not “real” in my compositions of frame, of angles, and choice of contrasts and manipulations of color. I know that all is not real and objectively unmanipulated, in the materialist sense, in what others and I can create. The realities of the impressionists, surrealists, cubists, and a variety of –ists for which I don’t even know the names, help me know more about the world. The careful story, nearly completely fabricated in detail yet accurate in scope and realm of human and natural things can move me to know more about how I fit in the nonliving, living, and societal world. I can know things through the fiction of words and visual arts. I can explore and use these simulations to perform experiments of the mind. Some material experiments explored thus are not feasible, or ethical, yet can guide reality so I use these valuable constructs. I can know through the discovery tool of art.

I am a trusting soul. I am an optimist when it comes to believing what people tell me. I believe in the basic goodness of people. But early and near constant experience has taught me to smell a rat. Rats come in many forms and I use many tools to sort the ugly, stinky rats from the beautiful sweet squirrels. It takes a lot of hard digging to unearth the clues that tell them apart. What might first present itself as a filthy rat can become a lovely squirrel, and vice versa. The apparent change comes in my eyes and heart when using a combination of faith, science, force, consensus, and art. That we can all dig with a variety of tools to come closer, to reach, truth is what I do and profess. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

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I’m a husband, father, scientist, photographer, professor, and church guy. Insect studies carry me all over the world. Kaye and I have been married for 31 years and have three grown children, Jason, Andrea, and Amy. I’ve been a professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah for 11 years and was a professor at the University of Texas in Austin for the previous 10 years. My LDS mission to Tahiti in the South Pacific changed my worldview about love, gratitude, and sharing. My college training came with degrees from Utah State University and Brigham Young University and a postdoctoral fellowship at the California Academy of Sciences. I enjoy Utah and am proud of my roots in Brigham City where I discovered wonder. My summers are spent in the tropics of Tahiti and South America or in the mountains and steppes of Mongolia. Lately I’ve been enhancing that wonder in remote Mongolia for a month each year working out where aquatic insects live and how they can be used to help Mongolians preserve their amazing rivers, streams, and wildlands. My scientific publications deal with stoneflies, robber flies, species inventories, conservation, and how to be a better science teacher. My photos focus on nature and humans fitting in a wonderful puzzle. I specialize somewhat in ultra close-ups and panoramas. Have you ever pondered the eye of a fly on a wide horizon? I have never lost my sense of wonder of the world and hope you are teaching wonder to your children and grandchildren.

Keep asking what, how, and why.

Posted May 2011