Nothing can hold people’s attention for two days.

Specifically, a conference on “nothingness” held the attention of a full crowd in Buchanan 1910 last weekend.

The conference, “Nothing in Common: Scientific and Contemplative Views on Nothing,” was hosted by Alan Wallace, a visiting lecturer in the Religious Studies Dept., and by K.C. Cole, a science writer for the Los Angeles Times. Other scientists and religious scholars included their perspectives.

The Religious Studies Dept. sponsored the conference, along with The Infinity Foundation – a nonprofit organization “dedicated to furthering the causes of compassion and wisdom” – which provided a grant.

Wallace joked about the grant with the audience who attended the free conference.

“The notion of getting something for nothing may rub against some basic principles here, but the fact that you’re getting nothing for nothing does balance it out,” he said. “And the fact that a conference on nothing is sponsored by the Infinity Foundation – well, there’s just something right about this.”

Other speakers included David Gross, the noted string theorist and director of UCSB’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, Richard Brown, a neurophysiologist at the San Francisco Museum of Science, and Tom Carlson and William Powell, both from UCSB’s Religious Studies Dept.

Wallace, who dropped out of western society at the age of 20 to spend 10 years in Tibet as a Buddhist monk, said that while it might seem odd to hold a conference including both scientists and scholars of eastern contemplative religions, such open dialogue is important. As a monk and translator for the Dalai Lama, Wallace learned the clash between science and the humanities is not as great for students of eastern religion as it is with western culture.

“Right now, in the modern west, science has no objective definition of consciousness and no objective means of determining its presence or absence. I think it’s fair to say that we don’t have a science of consciousness,” Wallace said. “Can we, on that basis, assume that no one else does? Is that not a gargantuan assumption of the type scientists tend to be very skeptical of most of the time? If someone else did have a science of consciousness, would we necessarily recognize it, since we don’t have one?”

Cole and Gross gave a brief history of physicists’ attempts to describe the vacuum and the nature of the universe.

“Nothing is at the center of physics – a very important subject,” Cole said. “In the past couple of years, it’s gotten even more central, to the extent that ‘nothing’ in the universe may outweigh all the matter and energy in the universe combined.”

Christian, Buddhist and Daoist theology each contain significant ideologies concerning nothingness. Christian “negative” theologians believed humans could comprehend nothing about God, and therefore God should be defined in terms of “nothingness.” Describing God is an eternal labor, Carlson said.

“The task of a negative theologian who must think and speak about that which eludes all thought and language remains an irreducibly paradoxical one, and hence an endlessly productive one,” he said. “The persistence of the paradox is precisely what will require considerable linguistic and conceptual creativity.”

Powell lectured on Daoist theology and the idea that nothingness helps people to understand their world. For a Daoist, the universe is constantly moving in and out of balance, and nothingness balances the things making up the universe.

During the panel discussion following the lectures, Cole said the most common theme addressed by all of the scholars was “potential,” since everything starts as nothing. To develop an understanding of anything, whether it is the physical universe or human thought, people must start with the base from which they begin.

Difficulties still abound in connecting science and the humanities. Gross said attempting to explain modern physics without math is much like trying to explain music to a deaf person – that one could give a general impression, but never truly convey its reality.