Mr Natural, the inscrutable sage of the old R. Crumb comix, was frequently asked that question, and he invariably answered it the same way.
Its not just sixty year old stoner insight from the Psychedelic Era, there is a nugget of legitimate philosophical understanding here. Yes, there is a real objective universe, a genuine reality of fields and waves; forces and particles, the universe the physicist studies: matter and energy interacting in space and time.
But we do not live in that universe. We experience a totally subjective reality, one that exists entirely in our minds and nowhere else. And furthermore, each and every one of us lives in a different version of that subjective reality. Our personal world may ultimately depend on what is going on in that external physical one, the realm of gravity and atoms, electricity and mathematics, but it is not the same thing. In fact, it seems our ancestors seem to have lived full, rich lives without the slightest idea that universe existed or how it was organized. And we are only now learning about that reality in a systematic and logical way. Science, after all, has a long and lurid history of bad guesses and blind alleys
There are a variety of reasons for this. We simply don’t have the ability to gather enough information about the external reality because of the crudeness and incompleteness of our sensory apparatus. We are also severely limited in our ability to affect this external reality. We are also handicapped by our inability to properly interpret what little information we do collect. Come to think of it, its a wonder we can exist at all in this chaotic, random and indifferent universe. As it is, we can’t even agree on just what we do perceive, or what we are to do about it. We have a vague glimpse of “the laws of nature”, but they seem to have very little to do with us or our day-to-day existence. It appears there is a reason for everything, but there doesn’t seem to be a purpose for anything.
Instead, each of us seems to construct his own internal universe (or universes, we seem capable of creating vast numbers of them, nested or running in parallel) and that is where we truly live. THAT is where the concept of “meaning” makes sense. To the athlete on the field, the rules of his sport, its history and team record and the events of each game he plays have great significance in his universe. The importance to the fan in the bleachers is very different, and to someone who does not follow the sport, there is little meaning at all. Meaning has nothing to do with objective reality, it has to do with your relation to that subjective reality you have created. This is not to be interpreted as that human reality having no legitimacy or value. On the contrary, it is our ability to create and embrace that meaning that is what defines our consciousness, our individuality, our personality. We get to pick that, we get to create our own universe, we get to make up the rules, the criteria for success and failure, and we have at least a partial ability to exercise choice. When you think about it, that is a truly godlike power.
We are gods not because we can do anything we want, but for the simple fact we can do anything at all. We create universes all the time, and we navigate them effortlessly, often moving from one to another. We exist in our family, our career, our community, our culture, all the hierarchies of our social relations. We have biological imperatives, evolutionary powers and limitations, psychological and social ones, a historical role, an economic existence, and some merely based on our own personal interests and prejudices. We create our own multiverse, and we experience it in a way we can’t experience subatomic particles or cosmic radiation, deep time or stellar evolution.
Even those external realities we detect in others, realities which we may feel are totally wrong or frivolous, obviously mean a great deal to those who embrace them. I may have no faith in the Christian religion of the martyrs in the Roman Colosseum, but it cannot be denied it offered them comfort and courage even as the wild beasts tore them apart. And lets not forget, in some way or another, the beasts get us all in the end.