What does the phrase "God is subtle, but He is not malicious" mean?

I've read an answer here, but it doesn't seem to be clear enough.

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    The answer given in your link seems pretty thorough. Specifically what aspect is not clear enough? – Urbycoz Jul 25 '11 at 8:58
  • btw subtle has many meanings which meaning is employed here? – Pacerier Jul 25 '11 at 9:22
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    You should not ask what is meant here by "subtle" but instead you should as what is meant here by "raffiniert". – GEdgar Jan 10 '12 at 15:26

This is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein.

(The following quotes are taken from above wikipedia article.)

His actual words were:

"Raffiniert ist der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist er nicht".

Translations include:

God is subtle but he is not malicious. (stated above)

Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not.

God is slick, but He ain’t mean.

Einstein's own explanation of his statement was:

"Nature hides her secret because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse".

The context:

Originally said to Princeton University mathematics professor Oscar Veblen, May 1921, while Einstein was in Princeton for a series of lectures, upon hearing that an experimental result by Dayton C. Miller of Cleveland, if true, would contradict his theory of gravitation.


Some say by this remark Einstein meant that Nature hides her secrets by being subtle, while others say he meant that nature is mischievous but not bent on trickery.

  • by subtle you do mean "difficult to analyze" right? – Pacerier Jul 25 '11 at 16:18
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    Here's the dictionary entry. thefreedictionary.com/subtle. Pick a definition. I think "elusive" is probably most likely what he was getting at. – Urbycoz Jul 26 '11 at 7:18
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    The German word raffiniert might also be translated as "cunning" or "devious". – Marthaª Jan 10 '12 at 15:45

I believe Einstein's meaning was that God can make the universe work in complex and subtle ways, but not with the intention of deceiving us.

Quantum physics might seem like a practical joke on God's part, but Einstein says that the failure to understand is ours, and not an attempt to trick us.


Einstein seemed to have an unbending faith in a ‘God’ who determined the laws of Nature.

His statements about ‘God’, however, refer not to a Biblical character or a man with a white beard, but to something inherent to Nature’s laws which is ‘good and divine’ but beyond our understanding.

His statements about God are, in my opinion as a physicist, expressions that there are some reasons why — although we don’t properly understand them yet — that the laws of Nature are particularly simple and understandable.

His references to ‘everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler’ is a statement of this, followed by a joke!

‘God is subtle but not malicious’ is a way to urge people to continue to look for simple explanations of apparently complicated phenomenon, but not to try too hard; that is, not to look for over-complicated explanations.

Einstein’s expressions of his philosophy are, in common with Newton’s, simply a desire to express that they have done nothing particularly clever, but that Nature is simple — and that the rest of us can discover her secrets, too!


Since Einstein was almost certainly agnostic, but too humble to be atheist and crow about it (no names mentioned!) his use of the word Gott or Herrgott must perhaps be understood metaphorically. I imagine he simply meant that the laws governing the universe happen to hide simplicity within apparent complexity. It is most probably his own poetic way of restating Occam's razor -- don't look for complexity, look for the simplicity hidden within apparent complexity, the order hidden in apparent chaos. Had he been alive today, I think he would have been horrified by the nonsense spewed by some cosmologists who are versed in building mathematical models of infinite complexity that represent nothing and refer to nothing but themselves, and have a poor grip on philosophical fundamentals -- even something as basic as epistemology: the theory of what we know, how we know it and how certain we can be of it. In fact the only thing we (strictly speaking "I") can be 100% certain of is "cogito ergo sum". Beyond absolutely certain knowledge of our (my) consciousness, careful probing by logical and strictly empirical methods can extend our knowledge with ever decreasing certitude until we reach the absurd certitude of theologians with their generally rather absurd God (who pulls Rabbits out of His Hat)-- and cosmologists who invent as many "dimensions" as mathematics permits, or magically bring matter into existence out of what they call "Nothingness" by means of what they call "virtual particles" sneaking into existence despite the absence of the quantum field for which these highly hypothetical little things have been postulated. Such circular and nonsensical reasoning on the Internet is wildly applauded by undergraduates with no background in basic philosophical methods and with an embarrassing enthusiasm that Einstein would probably have have dismissed as Schwärmerei. (I mention no names.)

Einstein is merely saying (I think) don't look for complexity in simplicity, rather look for simplicity in apparent complexity. Find the refined simplicity and the "boshafte" chaos of appearances.

"The reciprocal relationship of epistemology and science is of noteworthy kind. They are dependent upon each other. Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is -- insofar as it is thinkable at all -- primitive and muddled." [Einstein]

Our only source of knowledge about anything outside our own consciousness, comes to us in the form of simple electrical pulses, mostly binary zeroes and ones which mind interprets according to the way the brain has been "wired" by three billion years of evolution to interpret them (cf. Immanuel Kant), which we cannot change, and by the fundamentally mysterious nature of consciousness itself. Try to develop a language in which to describe the primary colours to a colour-blind person, and you'll see what I mean by "fundamentally mysterious". And I'm not referring to a purely operational definition, such as a reference to frequencies of electromagnetic energy. I mean, try to tell a colour-blind person precisely what red looks like.


Einstein meant it would cruel if such an elegant theory as his theory of general relativity turned out to be false.


It means that god does all the things that are meant to be done but only in his own style/fashion.

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    I'm not sure I understand how that means 'subtle' or 'malicious'. Myabe that is your interpretation of the phrase? Can you provide any sources to support your answer? – toryan Nov 15 '13 at 22:18

What he meant was that you cannot apply anthropomorphic concepts to things outside the human sphere, such as god. Nature('god') as revealed to us through the laws of science is what it is. Kindness, malice etc are human qualities. Einstein did not believe in an anthropomorphic god as described in the three major monotheisms. He thought such ideas of god were childish and naive. That is why her refers to nature as subtle and complex but nature does not "hide her" secrets" as a person or the god of Moses might.

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